Imagine you want to make a film about the only six Americans who escaped the takeover of the American Embassy inTehranin 1979. To the degree anyone even knows the story, how would you build tension and suspense when the outcome is known? And, since you are making a political thriller, how would you stir in some of the most uproarious dialogue to appear on screen this year? Lastly, since you have decided the film is going to be a majorHollywoodproduction, how would you avoid flag waving clichés? Well, hats off to actor/director Ben Affleck, who has solved all those problems in “Argo.” Hands down one of the most exciting films of the year.
It is 1979. The Ayatollah Khomeini has deposed the Shah and theU.S.has provided sanctuary to a man we put in power who is despised by most of his countrymen. The mullahs know that a sure fire way to consolidate their power is to focus on “The Great Satan,” and the crowds start to gather around the American Embassy. The chants of “Death toAmerica” are soon not enough to slake the thirst for vengeance and the mob storms the U.S. Embassy. The chaos of that moment is perfectly captured. It is not as if you are watching a film. It is what it must have been like to have been trapped in the Embassy as Iranian zealots poured in like water over a collapsing dam. In the confusion, however, six Americans escape through an unguarded door. Alone, afraid and conspicuous, they manage to make it to the home of the Canadian Ambassador. While they are safe for the moment, it is only a temporary respite. Back at the Embassy a crew of Iranians is painstakingly reassembling shredded documents and it is only a matter of time before they discover that they have not captured all of the embassy staff.
So what do you do if you are back inWashington? Six Americans are hiding inTehran, one of the most virulently anti-American regimes on the planet. How do you spirit them out? Enter CIA “extrication” expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck). After shooting down any number of half-baked schemes, he has a brainstorm. He will fly toTehranposing as a location scout for a science fiction film and whisk his countrymen out of the country as part of his Canadian film crew. Once he gets grudging approval for what many think is a harebrained scheme, his next step is to quickly set up a fake film company. Enter makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and schlock movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). What is there to say about this magical pairing, other than to speculate that they may have paid for the privilege of uttering the best lines of the year about the inner workings of the celluloid kingdom. Some of Arkin’s riffs (look for the line about Warren Beatty) are priceless.
The humor ends, however, when Mendez gets toTehran. The streets are alive with gun-toting volutionary Guards, and perceived enemies of the new regime are either summarily executed by firing squad or hung from construction cranes. Through adroit camera work and a sure sense of editing, Affleck has created a world that never seems less than hyper-real. All the details are perfectly captured. There are the elaborate back stories each of the six have to burn into their brains to convince any questioners that they are Canadians fully versed in their supposed film profession. Then there is the palpable fear of venturing outside in a city in which every Westerner is under suspicion and all captured Americans are assumed to be spies. Equally impressive is the portrayal of what is happening back inWashingtonas last minute snafus and “political considerations” threaten to undo all of Mendez’s efforts. I am sure poetic license was taken in the film and the final escape scene has no doubt been hyped to rachet up the tension. By that time, however, I was so invested in the film that I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Bottom Line: Run, do not walk, to see Argo”
Bill Paterson is of counsel to Ventura’s Ferguson Case Orr Paterson LLP.