While Ed Wood remains the greatest “making of a really bad movie” movie, Argo is now definitely a close second. Slick, funny, tense, telling — director and star Ben Affleck pulls off a helluva entertaining two hours, even if you do know how it all ends.
Now we Americans have a hard time with history, and so I don’t imagine many of you know about the Carter years, either because you’re too young or you smoked so much of that marijuana that it’s all kind of a purple haze, just like the new iPhone 5 photos.
I’ll recap quickly: It’s 1979, and the Shah of Iran has been run out of his palace on a rail by a disgusted and bedraggled Iranian people whom he had exploited and tormented for decades. The Ayatollah Khomeini now holds power, a cleric whose idea of peace and tolerance is just right of Julius II’s.
When James Earl “Jimmy” Carter decides to take the Shah into the United States for cancer treatments, an enraged Iranian mob storms the American Embassy in Tehran and 52 foreign-service workers are taken hostage. It would have been 58 had six intrepid souls not taken the initiative of hitting the streets just as enraged Iranians were busting through doors and windows The British and Australian Embassies refused admittance to the six escapees, but the Canadian ambassador and his wife, God bless their souls, took them into their home — at great risk to their own lives.
As the White House dithers, the CIA, already looking like the gang who couldn’t see straight for missing all those signs of unhappiness that lead finally to a freaking revolution, calls in one of its best “exfiltration” experts: Tony Mendez, aka Kevin Harkins, played by Affleck. While ideas are kicked around a table about possible disguises for the six Americans good enough to “exfiltrate” them out of the country — members of an agro NGO there to feed starving Iranians, Canadian teachers there to help the underprivileged learn to read the Geneva Convention — Mendez comes up with a wild winner one night while watching, of all things, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The CIA will set up a phony film-production company and get into Tehran under the pretense of scouting exotic Middle Eastern locations, with the six Americans made to look like part of the film crew. While Iranians may not buy a phony “help the pathetic Middle Easterners” ruse, they may be intrigued by, even excited about, a big-time Hollywood film being shot in their midst just at the point when their country’s PR is roughly that of Jerry Sandusky children’s charity.
So Mendez gets the green light from the CIA director and flies out to Hollywood to see a veteran makeup artist named John Chambers with a history of helping out intelligence before when it needed some need Mission Impossible–style makeup work. John Goodman plays Chalmers with just the right amount of cynicism, not about the project, but about Hollywood. In a place where everybody lies about projects that are never going to come off, what becomes the Argo caper just could work.
But first they need a producer with some real screen cred to lend luster to this project should the Iranians do a little investigating as to its authenticity. That’s where Lester Siegel comes in. At the point in his career where all he can hope for are Lifetime Achievement Awards for a lifetime of B pictures, Siegel, played with just the right blend of faded glory and contempus mundi by the legendary Alan Arkin, moved by images of the hostages on TV, is all in. “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.”
And so Argo hits the trades as “in production” and Mendez flies to Tehran. After obtaining from a less-than-enthusiastic Minister of Culture, who thinks Argo will be one more cartoonish portrait of quaint Persians on flying carpets, a permit to scout locations, Mendez meets up with the six Americans still hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s residence.
The Americans need some convincing to take part in this scenario. But despite being terrified that they will be unconvincing and that they are setting themselves up for a public hanging, Mendez manages to win their trust, with his calm, professional demeanor. And the fact that there are no alternatives.
Meanwhile, scores of Iranian children have been pressed into service piecing together the shredded ID photos from the captured American Embassy so that the Revolutionary Guard will be able to identify the six Americans who have gone missing, in the event they try and leave the country. The scores of kids laying strips of paper side by side in an effort to put together the bigger picture is both ludicrous and creepy, as is the juxtaposition back in the States of Carter’s firm stance against terrorists, the propaganda machine coming out of Tehran claiming the hostages are all spies, and the Americans themselves as they don their new identities as the film crew for Argo.
Surreal is the subtitle of this page in American history.
Well, wouldn’t you know it: just as Mendez is at the point of bringing the Americans out of the Embassy, their “scouting” of local-color locations ostensibly completed, someone at State pulls the plug on the whole operation on the basis of some planned military operation.
Mendez is left with a choice. Walk away and leave behind the six Americans with their bad hair and oversized glasses and porn staches who have come to trust their would-be savior, or recite the tag line of both the movie and the operation as a whole — “Argofuckyourself.” (Which reminds me, a lot of F-bombs are dropped in this film. So, be prepared…)
He chooses the latter, with a last-minute phone call to his chief back at Langley, Jack O’Donnell (played with both rage and feeling by Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston). Even though the operation has been unilaterally resurrected, Washington has officially killed it, and so Mendez and his phony film crew are headed to an airport that will no longer have any record of reservations having been made for them. This will not look good.
Can O’Donnell get everybody who’s anybody to get back on board the operation in time for Mendez to pull get his crew out of Iranian air space? Will those kids piece together the photos of the Americans in time for the Iranians to stop their escape? Will Chambers and Siegel make it back to their production office in time to take a very urgent call from Tehran?
Affleck and his screenwriter, Chris Terrio, know how to hit all the right suspense notes and make everyone just sympathetic enough or villainous enough so that you’re on the proverbial edge of your seat through most of the film. And that’s the problem. By the time the real climax comes, you’re so conscious of being manipulated that the tension becomes almost funny. Almost.
The humor in this film is such that you never lose sight of the fact that, despite its being a true story (or at least rooted in a true story), it’s completely ludicrous. And yet, and yet, that’s Hollywood. And Washington. Which are interchangeable sometimes. Both Goodman and Arkin read out some winning, memorable lines, as when Arkin sees a news report of the invasion of Afghanistan and an impotent Carter administration threatening to pull out of the Olympics: “John Wayne’s in the ground six months and this is what’s left of America.”
Well, Wayne was a Hollywood product too. But Argo, strangely, was not. That took the Ayatollah and the CIA and the brave Canadian ambassador and his wife. It’s Canada that ended up taking all the credit for rescuing the Americans, even though both Mendez and Chambers won the CIA’s highest medals of honor (which they immediately had to give back, given that the operation was classified).
I’m glad Tony Mendez has his moment in the limelight. A braver fathermother you’re not going to find. I wonder if the Hispanic community will be annoyed that his character was played by Affleck and not a Hispanic actor. He lives in retirement now in suburban Maryland. (Chambers passed on in 2001.)
I give everyone credit for not only rendering a convincing portrait of a ridiculous set of circumstances but also for keeping the preaching to a minimum. Especially as we watch what is going on in the Middle East today and the temptation to manipulate events grows. You don’t need to hit people over the head with the “unintended consequences” message. “Ape must not kill ape” will do just fine.
Here’s the trailer from the original Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which John Chambers worked on. (He also designed Mr. Spock’s original pointy ears. Talk about a legend!)