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Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is the type of movie Hollywood never makes any more: a thriller for adults, steeped in history and humor. The tension at the end is so heightened I almost got a headache. But it’s what they do at the beginning that is particularly noteworthy.
“Argo” is about a true-to-life, supersecret CIA mission, declassified in 1997, in which a lone operative, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), flies to Iran in January 1980, in the midst of the hostage crisis, to rescue six American foreign service officers who have taken refuge in the Canadian embassy.
And how does the movie begin? With context.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio, and Warner Bros., have the audacity to show us, in storyboard fashion, a short history of Iran and its shahs, and of the election in 1950 of Mohammad Mosaddegh, an author and lawyer, who nationalized British and U.S. petroleum in his country, and who was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by MI6 and the CIA three years later. His replacement was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom we all knew as the Shah of Iran, whose lifestyle was profligate, whose police force was ruthless, and who attempted to westernize his country, angering Islamic clerics. This helped lead to his own coup d’etat in 1979, which brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini. Later that year, Iranian students overwhelmed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Thus began, in a sense, our modern age.
The crowd looks a little bigger today
“Argo” begins on that day, Nov. 4, 1979, with demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy, and embassy officials inside saying things like, “The crowd looks a little bigger today, doesn’t it?” Then one Iranian jumps the wall. Another. A stream. Metal cutters arrive to cut the chains of the gate and the students flood in. They pound on the doors of the embassy. They break windows.
There’s an obvious innocence to the people inside. They don’t know that history is being made. They don’t know the modern age is about to begin. So while some officials shred documents, and a security officer, aware of the lessons of My Lai and Kent State, warns his subordinates not to fire at anyone in the crowd, and then blunders outside thinking he can actually calm the crowd, six officials, helping Iranians obtain U.S. visas, debate whether or not to leave. One of the six finally says, “If we need to go, we need to go now,” and they exit the building with the visa-seeking Iranians, then find themselves on the streets in a hostile country. When Washington D.C. gets the news about the embassy takeover, they, too, don’t know the modern age is about to begin. In a bout of early optimism, one official says of the Iranian president, “Bani Sadr says it’ll be over in 24 hours.”
Then the screen goes black. Then these words appear: 69 days later.
The best bad idea
At this point we’re introduced to Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), calm in demeanor, prone to drink, and with stylized hair and beard similar to Michael Douglas in “The China Syndrome.” In a motel room full of Chinese takeout boxes and crushed Miller High-Life cans, with the TV on, he’s sleeping it off, fully clothed. In a bad leisure suit. It’s the 1970s.
When Mendez arrives at a meeting at Langley, he finds out about the six, and the various idiot schemes being propagated by officials. No. 1? Airlift in bicycles and have the six bike the 300 miles to the Turkish border. “Or you could just send in training wheels and meet them at the border with Gatorade,” Mendez responds.
It’s an OK line but give Affleck credit. He gives most of the best lines to his stellar supporting cast. At one point Mendez’s CIA superior, Jack O’Connell (Bryan Cranston), says, “Carter’s shitting enough bricks to build the pyramids.” When he pitches Mendez’s movie scheme to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (Bob Gunton, temporarily freed from warden duty), Vance’s contemporary, played by Philip Baker Hall, asks, “You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” and O’Connell responds, with deference, “This is the best bad idea we have. Sir.” There’s something very American about that. We are a country made up of best bad ideas.
Mendez then contacts a friend, legendary Hollywood makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman), who guides Mendez through the Hollywood scene and who finds him a producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who declares, as they go through scripts, “If I’m going to make a fake movie I want it to be a fake hit.” They find one: “Argo,” a sci-fi flick. He and Chambers begin a running gag about the title: “Argo fuck yourself.” If there’s any justice, you’ll be hearing that a lot this fall.
But even in Hollywood we get serious moments. Mendez is separated from his wife and kid, and, in a moment of camaraderie, he asks Siegel about his family. Siegel says he has two grown daughters whom he sees once a year. He says, with no self-pity, “I was a terrible father.” He gives this excuse without excusing himself. “It’s a bullshit business. You come home to your wife and kids, you can’t wipe it off.” Great line. Great line reading. You don’t have to live in Hollywood to identify.
So the plan is for Mendez to travel to Iran as a Hollywood producer, scouting exotic locations (sand dunes, etc.) for a post-“Star Wars” sci-fi flick. There are write-ups in the trades, storyboards created, publicity, a meeting with potential investors at the Beverly Hilton. In the distance, the Hollywood sign is crumbling.
At the Canadian embassy in Iran, Mendez is greeted less as rescuer than as the man who will get them all killed. But authorities are closing in. Iranian officials already know six embassy officials are missing. They’re piecing together shredded documents, like pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, that will reveal names and faces. They don’t know it but they need to get out now.
Is the tension at the end too much? Too heightened? Too unreal? At the airport, an angry bearded official doesn’t believe them and checks out their story, as, back at the U.S. embassy, the face of one of the six is pieced together and tied to a clandestine shot of “the movie crew” going through Tehran’s market. Officials then storm the Canadian embassy, phone calls are made, and police cars and jeeps roar down the runway after the Swiss Air jet about to take off with our heroes. It’s all very Spielbergian.
Why the terrorists won
It’s also effective and fascinating and witty and historically important. It’s a feel-good story about a feel-bad time. I remember those times. I was in high school. The sense of impotence the country felt because of the hostage crisis led directly to the election of Ronald Reagan and his own-brand of Hollywoodish feel-good fantasies. We’ve been doubling down on those fantasies ever since. In this way the terrorists won.
How about Ben Affleck? After “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” he’s now 3 for 3. “Argo” is a fun movie for smart people. Argo fucking see it already.
October 9, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard