Special to The History Place
Ben Affleck’s Argo really took me back. Jimmy Carter was president. The Shah of Iran was deposed. The U.S. allowed him to come to the New York-Weill Cornell Medical Hospital for treatment of his cancer. The Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after years of exile and an Islamic republic was declared. Outraged at America’s refusal to repatriate the Shah for trial and likely execution, the regime instigated mob violence at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The climax was the storming and occupation of the compound on November 4, 1979. After that, 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days, until the inauguration of Ronald Reagan on January 20, 1981.
Unbeknownst to the Iranians, a half-dozen Americans managed to slip out of the embassy compound and take refuge in the Canadian embassy. The CIA-Canadian operation to rescue these six Yanks forms the plot of Argo. The brash idea was the brainchild of CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, who also directed the film. A team of CIA agents and Hollywood patriots pulled the unlikely escapade together. John Goodman and Alan Arkin play the Tinsel Town connection.
Inspired by the popular Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Mendez suggests that the agency fabricate a sci-fi film, Argo, with a real Hollywood producer (Arkin), who’s seeking a Middle Eastern locale as its setting. Goodman and Arkin construct a Potemkin Village of sorts: Ads and interviews in Variety; a press conference/dramatic reading of the script by actors in costume; even a Hollywood office.
Meanwhile Affleck’s Mendez spearheads the fabrication of seven fake identities–one for himself as a producer, and six more for the folks he plans to extricate from Tehran. All will travel as Canadian moviemakers. Complicating the ruse is the need to persuade Iranian customs that the six have only been in-country a couple of days.
All of this takes time. Nerves fray inside the Canadian embassy, where everyone worries whether or not the Iranian staff will preserve their dark, dark secret. By the time Affleck finally lands in Tehran, some of the six stranded Yankees are half stir crazy. Others are thinking they might be better off surrendering to the Iranians, rather than risking capture posing as Canadians. Back at Langley, nerves are taut, too. With the doomed rescue attempt, that ultimately ended in crashed helicopters in the desert sands, just getting underway, second thoughts about the Affleck/Mendez mission abound.
Director Affleck makes good use of these criss-crossing currents to give us a tense thriller. This is one of those movies, like A Mighty Heart (also reviewed by me), where the outcome is already well known, and yet we are on the edge of our seats anyway. Kudos to Affleck for pulling that off.
I give him high marks, too, for tackling a story that is old news. Even granting that the CIA’s role didn’t emerge until about ten years ago, the yarn dates back to events long since eclipsed by the First and Second Gulf Wars, the War on Terror, and so much more. Double kudos that he apparently recognized the currency of the story in light of the challenges presently facing the Obama Administration.
Jimmy Carter, a hapless figure fairly remembered as an ineffectual chief executive, wisely exercised patience and measured responses to the outrage of the Hostage Crisis. Arguably, it was the straw that broke his presidency’s back. A more dramatic military response might have given him the edge over Reagan’s rising star. He chose prudence, instead.
This may be a lesson to be learned by President Obama, as our Israeli allies predictably push for intensified confrontation over Iran’s growing nuclear capability. Argo suggests that brains may be preferable to brawn, and patience preferable to violent action, when dealing with Iran’s provocations.
Well, maybe, or maybe not. Suffice to say that the awards won by Affleck and Argo are deserved. Argo, like all 2012’s other films, is overshadowed by Spielberg’s Lincoln (also reviewed by me in this space). But it’s a dandy yarn.
Rated R for language and some violent images.
Jim Castagnera is the author of 19 books, including the new Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom. His “American Counter Terrorism Law” course is available free of charge at https://www.canvas.net/courses/american-counter-terrorism-law