The 20th Century ended harshly. The Pax Millennium that our fathers and grandfathers had hoped, fought, and died for in World War II never arrived. Instead, the world was divided by an iron curtain into ideologies who, despite a proclaimed peace, hungered for dominance. The mass conflicts of the first half of the century splintered into bloody, costly outbreaks in places that were once only a geography lesson in primary school. Oppressive regimes fell only to be replaces by revolutionary regimes who vowed change and justice, but who repeated the methods of their progenitors. Starvation, atrocities, fear, and oppression were replaced with more starvation, atrocities, torture, and oppression. Only the slogans changed. The practical lessons of the first half of the century were ignored, forgotten, and reinterpreted with righteous justification. At the dawn if the new millennium we have entered into it like newborns kicking and screaming in fear of the environment we are forced to inhabit Medicine has extended our lifespan, but instead of curing us it has numbed our senses. We have become numb to compassion, numb to reflection, and numb to opinion, and even numb to death, although we seem to fear it above everything else. We don’t believe in guardian angels anymore. In fact, we scoff at those who do. And yet, once in a great while something quite remarkable happens.
Ben Affleck’s film Argo is a story about one of those remarkable events.
But, first a bit a bit of history. There are still many of us who still remember the last century. In 1979, a fundamentalist revolutionary movement overthrew the regime of the then ruler of Iran, Shah Mohammed Raiza Pahlavi, and forced him to escape to America. Diagnosed with cancer he took refuge in the United States. As a former ally he was welcomed. In retribution vanguard elements the young revolution in Iran invaded and occupied the US Embassy. The new idealists, in order to impress their zeal on the world, threatened mass public beheadings of the 44 hostages who were interred at the US Embassy complex, until the US agreed to return the Shah to Iran for his own eventual execution. The invasion of the Embassy was an earthshattering incident. Embassies throughout the world have always been considered the sovereign territory of the country occupying them. To invade an embassy was considered an open act of war. Although 44 US employees were captured, six American diplomats managed to escape. Refused by all the embassies they approach, they are finally offered sanctuary at the Canadian embassy where they are hidden for over 80 days.
In 1980, the Canadians were expelled by the revolutionary government. The embassy was forced to shut down. With the help of the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor, the six American diplomats left the country disguised as part of the Canadian entourage. That is the story we heard in the media. However, that wasn’t the whole story.
The film, Argo, is a dramatic representation of the escape. The film depicts an insane scheme devised by the CIA, the Canadians and an independent producer/make-up designer John Chambers which created a bogus Canadian film company that arrived in Iran to scout locations for a science fiction film in the Middle East. The scheme involves an American CIA operative, Tony Mendez, who enters Iran, falsifies six extra documents, and with Canadian passports appropriated from the Ambassador, leaves the country on a flight to Zurich with six the Americans disguised as the Canadian location scouting crew, dodging the Iranian Revolutionary Guard even up to the moment of take-off.
Argo, is really a quite good film. The rhythm is quick, steady. A certain amount of humor is interjected into the tension with scenes by actors John Goodman (as Chandler) and Alan Arkin (as Lester Siegel his Argo co-producer). Affleck as an actor and director performs admirably. Many years after the co-creation of Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon, and after many years of rather disappointing films, it’s a pleasure to see him offer a product that is worthy. The 120 minutes on the screen do not linger. Furthermore, Argo has that mark of a good of a very good action film, where one knows the final outcome yet surrenders to the anxiety that the whole scheme can still fail.
The film has been criticized by history aficionados as an over dramatization of the facts. The real Mendez, in fact, had a partner, the Canadian Ambassador did much more than just open and close the doors of the Embassy, the security at the airport in Tehran was much more lax than depicted, there were no fist-clinching chase scenes, and all the Iranians in Tehran were not evil. Furthermore, it has been slammed as another Hollywood self-pat on the back. However, there is one very important thing that one must remember while viewing this film. Films are stories about the extraordinary. Even if the plot is based on fact, the mundane is replaced by the exaggerated. This film, especially, should not be viewed as a history lecture. Accepting this films as such is missing the point by a long shot.
What really appealed to me in this film was a moment played by Affleck in a hotel room, when after Mendez is ordered to scrub the mission and abandon the diplomats, he decides to act against orders and follow through with the operation, forcing the CIA, the Department of State, and even the President to honor their commitment to the plan. Mendez still cared enough to save those people. It was that guardian angel moment that made the film for me.
You see, dear reader, by nature I am a pessimist. My dearest friend always lovingly chides my “glass half empty” attitude. He is right, however. For me the glass is half empty. When I was much younger, I saw so many possibilities of filling the glass to the brim. In reality what I have experienced is that the glass now contains half of the half it had years ago. I feel like a Pollyanna who’s just gone through her first of many menstrual cycles, and this one was a really bad one. I don’t view the world as a particularly loving place. That’s why I go to moves. No matter how tragic they are, each of them still offer that guardian angel moment that offers me a bit of respite from my misanthropy. Argo has a great one. My thanks to Ben Affleck. I hope the film meets great success.
Of course, as always, this is only my opinion. Go see the film, and judge for yourself.