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Friday, May 3, 2013

Move Review - Argo

This year’s Oscar winner for best picture is a much deserved production directed by Ben Affleck, who incidentally was snubbed by the Academy in the category of Best Director. But the film is a triumph, proving that his Oscar award-winning script with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting was no fluke. He was only a boy then and has now proven to be a very talented story teller.
I can see why Hollywood honored this film, since two of its heroes are a sloppy make-up artist (John Goodwin) and a hardened, crusty film producer (Alan Arkin - one of my favorite actors). With a drab studio-lot office and a list of B movies on their resume, they are no strangers to the dog-eat-dog world of film-making where lying and scheming are the order of the day. Who could imagine that in 1979, these less-than-honorable attributes would be just what the CIA needed to rescue a handful of US diplomats trapped in the Canadian embassy after escaping an angry mob in Tehran? Amazingly, this story is based in truth, having been sealed to the public for decades. Now, years later, we have this wonderful movie to share the events surrounding these unlikely heroes who helped save the lives of six Americans.
The film opens with dedicated diplomats busy at work in the US Embassy in Tehran, trying their best to ignore an angry riot outside the building’s compound. But once the wall is crossed, there’s nothing much security can do. It is edge-of-the-seat action as everyone makes a mad scramble to destroy documents and get to safety before the tide of fury pours in. Seeing the rage in the faces of those Iranian men and women is a frightening scene, giving new meaning to the term “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Not everyone in the embassy is fortunate enough to escape, but six find refuge with the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber) who keeps their location a secret. With temporary safety secured, the US State Department explores rescue options, none of which are viable given the tenuous political climate. Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), a CIA exfiltration specialist, is consulted and surreptitiously comes up with a bizarre, yet ingenious, plan. While on the phone with his little son, an idea is hatched as they watch a favorite movie together—Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Mendez realizes the desert setting is a perfect cover to convince the Iranian government he is a Canadian filmmaker scouting exotic locations for his next sci-fi film. Now all the CIA has to do is convince the fugitives to pass themselves off as a film crew and then escape back to Canada without a hitch. Easier said than done.
 Enter our Hollywood heroes, Goodman and Arkin, who agree to help. They scan through a pile of old, rejected scripts and find one entitled Argo, a science fantasy in the vein of Star Wars. After securing the rights, they set up a phony studio, plan script readings in full costume and make-up, draw storyboards and marketing posters, and make arrangements to go on a location scout with Mendez as producer. Meanwhile, tensions escalate in the Canadian ambassador’s residence when it is discovered the Iranian maid knows the truth. While she appears to be loyal, the fugitives suspect their days of remaining hidden are numbered. Little do they know, but a large group of Iranian women and children spend day and night piecing together shredded documents like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, soon discovering that six diplomats are unaccounted for. With each passing day, they come that much closer to recreating photographs of the fugitives.
The movie takes off once Mendez travels to Iran with a fake ID, passport, and a visa to enter the country as a Canadian film producer. Upon reaching Tehran, he takes up residence with the Canadian Ambassador and preps the six diplomats on the escape plan. As one might expect, they are frightened and unsure if they can actually pull off convincing the Iranian authorizes they are a legitimate film crew. But Mendez sees no other way. He doles out manila packages to each person, complete with new names, identities, and bios, and encourages them to cooperate.
A trial-run scouting visit to a crowded bazaar doesn’t go as planned, ending with their pictures being snapped and Mendez narrowly whisking them to safety. This heightens the fear even more, to the point where several of the fugitives refuse to cooperate further, threatening to infect the group with dissension. To make matters worse, Mendez is told by his US superiors that the mission is terminated because of a planned military rescue of the hostages. But after a series of threats and political finagling, he is successful in getting approval to bring the diplomats home on Swissair.
At this point, fast-paced airport sequences take the movie from an exciting thriller to an action film. First, the tickets don’t show up on the computer system until the last second, security is frightening but eventually successful – Adam’s apples are bobbing, sweat breaks out on the forehead, hands shake and eyes flutter to and fro. As they near the gate and are almost ready to board the plane, they encounter a group of bully military guards who scream Arabic at them, harkening back to the horrible day when the angry crowd destroyed the embassy. Mendez and his crew turn on the Hollywood charm by pitching their movie, producing movie posters and storyboards, acting like seasoned veterans of Tinsel Town. It works for a few moments, but then the guards insist on calling North America to verify things.
On the other side of the world, Goodman and Arkin stroll back to their studio-lot office, not knowing who is telephoning at that very moment. As the phone rings and rings, they are held up on a movie set, finally reaching the office and picking up after what seemed like ten agonizing minutes. Goodman gives a good spiel and the guards are satisfied. Mendez and the diplomats scurry out to the plane, leaving their Argo paraphernalia behind as peace offerings to the guards—all except one storyboard, which Mendez slips into his bag.
But not so fast—as the terminal doors close, the guards get a call stating that the shredded documents have been pieced together and reveal the photo of one of the escaped diplomats who posed as a film crew member that day in the bazaar. The guards hustle into a jeep and chase the airplane as it taxis down the runway. As Mendez looks out the window, the plane accelerates and lifts off, just as the lead guard shakes his fist and gnashes his teeth. It is only when they reach safe airspace that Mendez and the diplomats give a sigh of relief. At last, they are free.
To protect the hostages and other Americans at risk, the US’s involvement in the rescue was suppressed and all credit given to Canada and its ambassador. Mendez was awarded the Intelligence Star but had to return it until the information was declassified in 1997. I can’t imagine holding something like that inside for so many years, never being able to tell a soul, especially your family. Probably why I don’t work for the CIA.
But there are other ways to communicate truth, even if clandestine means are used. It’s interesting how a good movie can be taken into the realm of greatness by one little scene which evokes emotion from deep within the soul. I had no idea what was raging within me as I watched this narrow escape take place. But here it is: when Mendez returns home to his estranged wife and little boy, he produces the one remaining storyboard and props it up on his son’s shelf along with all the other sci-fi toys and gadgets. And for the first time, we see the picture up close—it is the image of a Ben Affleck-looking man and a little sandy-haired boy in a spaceship, narrowing escaping an attack from an evil desert empire. Now how’s that for great storytelling? Loved it! That scene was like icing on the cake for me.
Argo is a great movie worthy of watching again and again to catch the many nuances of plot twists and turns. Hopefully, Mr. Affleck will be directing more Oscar-worthy films to come.

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