Argo Fuck Yourself!
Swift shot: Powerful stuff, from a celebrity that I usually don’t agree with politically, and some of his roles have made me question his decisions as an actor. But, whenever he directs something, Ben Affleck commands respect. He did a great job with The Town and Gone Baby Gone, and when I saw he was directing Argo, I was pretty stoked to see what he could create. He created something magnificent, but he left out a pretty key figure . . . hopefully not just because the guy happened to have an (R) after his name. Tacked onto an incredible story about how the CIA used a phony film to attempt the release of six Americans, trapped behind hostile borders, is the story of an estranged father. Tony Mendez (Affleck) is out there risking his life so that his son can avoid living in a world of peril. Affleck only touches on this aspect of Tony’s character, but it was immediately understood the kind of relationship he had with his family. I loved how he used “TV” to connect with his son and the audience, back in a simpler time when there were only six channels on TV, anyway. Back in a time when the word “press” actually carried weight.
Affleck starts out the film with a pretty scathing attack on US foreign policy towards Iran, but he does it in a stylistic, clever fashion. Plus, it needed to be explained, as most of the audience forgot a few details about how Iran’s 1979 revolution came about. Ultimately though, they were (and some would argue, still are) disgusted with the USA, in particular, and the “West” at large. Just having an American name in a phone-book could, and did, get you hanged for treason against the Ayatollah.
It’s November 4th, 1979, and protestors are about to storm the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran. The embassy staff looks on helplessly as the vacant parking lot surrounding them is the only barrier keeping the radicals at bay. The Marine guards inside the embassy itself are preparing for a really bad day. They are given orders “not to shoot anyone” because they could start a war. Imagine a tiny building floating adrift in a sea of angry people, and you get the idea of what it means to be screwed, royally. If you are a history buff, you may know how things turn out, but even if you were just a kid (like I was in 1979) you couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing about the “Hostages.” Suffice it to say, the embassy is overrun, the Marines never fire a shot, and the hostage-situation in Iran is born. But unlike in 1979, it is right in your face, in digital color, and not on some rabbit-eared screen in your living room.
It’s an all consuming topic for the time, the Soviets were preparing to invade Afghanistan, John Wayne had passed away a few months earlier, and we had a (few would argue) pacifying Commander-in-Chief in Carter. While the bulk of people in the embassy were captured by the Iranians, six people managed to sneak out and hide out in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence. But, even the Canadians were wearing out their welcome, because they too were “The West.” The clock was ticking for the Iranians to realize the six unaccounted for staff members were still in country. The CIA was tasked with assisting the State Department (the masters of all things Cluster Fuck) to ex-filtrate, or ex-fil, the missing Americans. Publicly, there were hostages already taken from the embassy, but the identity and situation of the six ‘houseguests’ was not public knowledge, and the Iranians didn’t even know they existed. But they were working on all the retrieved intelligence gathered from the embassy . . . and the clock was ticking.
Now, as this story is “Based on a True Story” and there was a subtle disclaimer in the end credits that “some scenes were fabricated for dramatic emphasis,” I can only speak to what I know from watching the film play out. But, the drama in Argo is real, the suspense is real, and as I sat there watching our embassy overrun, I thought, wow, less than a month ago, this same scenario played out in Libya, with immediate dire results. Anyone who watches Argo and doesn’t vote can Argo Fuck Themselves! “Elections have consequences,” and while I can’t speak to the scenes that were or weren’t dramatically enhanced, I can tell you what was put before us was really powerful stuff and a reminder that, yes, these clowns we put in positions of power really can make life and death decisions for real Americans. Just ask the Stevens family about that!
Tony, under the cover of a film producer, sets out with a daring ex-fil op to use a phony film location scouting team as a Canadian film crew, in one telling scene it is accurately described as “the best, bad idea” available by Bryan Cranston’s character, Jack O’Donnell. No one really expects it to work, but the other options are even less likely to fly. Imagine you are Tony, setting off to the enemy hive and having to rescue six people that you never met and juggle some kind of relationship with your family. You believe in your plan, at least on paper, and you hope for the best, because anything less means slow, painful death . . . if you are lucky enough to receive death. That is the very real threat hanging over every player in this most dangerous game of deception, including the six ‘housegusets’.
Tony has connections in the film industry, one Academy Award winner John Chambers (the guy who invented Spock’s ears – and is my new hero) played by another John, Goodman. If he was given a little more to work with, Goodman might be nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but I will wager solid odds Affleck will get the Best Director nod. Chambers actually existed, and he actually lent his talents to this, and perhaps other, CIA operations as a solid connection for his government. As good as Chambers is though, he needs a solid producer, enter Lester Spiegel (Allan Arkin) whom may or may have not existed, or may still exist and thus wants his name changed to prevent, well, you know, slow, painful death. Look, folks, some of the players in this real-life drama are still walking around, let’s not think some IRGC agents wouldn’t love to get their leather gloves around their necks.
With everything in place, the “Argo” crew at Studio 6 relies on the greatest whore around to do their dirty work for them, you know, the press. Uhm, yea, so, moving on, they make the film’s buildup as real as possible, making a giant spectacle of the read-through. Affleck brilliantly juxtaposes this sequence with another, factual event from the day that will have your guts in your throat.
Tony needs to get into Iran first, which doesn’t prove too difficult as he is a pro. His newly adopted “crew” of “Canadians” on the other hand are just regular folks. They are terrified . . . and with good reason. See, by escaping the initial hostage taking at the embassy, they don’t officially exist, publicly anyway, it’s easier to have them “disappear” into the gulags of the Iranian regime. You always hear that it is “good news” when we see hostages paraded around, because that is both proof of life, and the bad guys have claimed ownership, so they are responsible for what happens to their prisoners. Think about when the British Sailors were captured a few years back and we heard about them in Iranian hands, we knew they existed, we knew who had them, they were political pawns, essentially. And, because of that, we got them back, or, the Brits did anyway.
Once inside Iran, Tony has to convince these regular American citizens that they need to pretend to be a Canadian film-crew. That’s all I will say further, in case you too forgot how everything played out in the end.
What made this film so damned good is the attention to detail, painstakingly recreating the late 70s, even using the opening Warner Bros. logo from the 70s to start the film, nice touch, that, Ben. I really believed these events were happening all over again, this time, live and in bright, terrifying color. Watching the embassy stormed, watching as the Marine Security Detail tries in vain to stand their ground. Watching as little TVs were peppered throughout the film’s landscape to further build the tension and authenticity of the time. Everyone in America was involved in what was happening to “the Hostages” and everyone just wanted to “bring them home.” I was five when this happened, and I can remember hearing those phrases over and over. I might not have understood much, but I knew that Americans were in jail in a land far away and we were all, one nation, praying for them, daily.
I give solid praise to Affleck for capturing the event, letting us behind the scenes on an operation as daring as it was foolish, in a time when the Soviets were still very much a threat, the Nuclear Holocaust wasn’t just a horror movie plot, and Americans stood together to stand for something bigger than themselves. Affleck deserves an Oscar for Best Director for this film. But, I have one thing I can’t forgive him for, he left out a certain actor, and major player, during this crisis because of his politics. For that, I say, shame on him. If you are going to tell a story, then tell the story, don’t create propaganda, you are better than that, evidenced by your incredible detail with this film. I only hope he will give credit where it is due in the Blu-ray version special features. Still, Argo is an exceptionally well-shot, well-told, story about Honor, Courage and Commitment.