October 23, 2012
Not-So-Family Film Blogging: Argo
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, last Friday I went to a movie that was not animated.  (Wow!)  I had the great opportunity to go to see Argo with law students.  I mention the company because the generational divide is going to become important later.  Anyway, I have to say that I was not disappointed.  The movie is a solid two hours, but it went by very quickly and had me on the edge of my seat.  And, just like Apollo 13, I knew how the movie ended, but I was in suspense anyway.  (Yes, some of the suspense was contrived, but I'm fine with that.)

So, what is this true story?  The story is one that I haven't heard before, maybe because it was "classified" until 1998.  However, part of the story was general knowledge in 1981, though I have no memory of this.  When the U.S. embassy was stormed and persons in the embassy were taken hostage in November 1979, six foreign service employees escaped.  They eventually found refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house, where they stayed for over two months.  The film dramatizes the CIA's successful attempt to "ex-filtrate" them back to the U.S. before the Iranians find them and potentially treat them even more harshly than the embassy hostages.  Once back home, their escape was credited to the Canadians, and no mention of American involvement was given to the press in order to avoid retaliation on the hostages.

The focus of the film is on CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, and his wacky plan to get the hostages out by pretending to be Candian filmmakers looking for an exotic location to shoot a sci-fi movie, "Argo."  Just wacky enough to work. And the best parts of the movie are set in Hollywood, where Mendez is being helped by John Goodman, who plays a real-life makeup artist who was involved, and Alan Arkin, who plays a fictional veteran producer, a composite of historical participants.  These two get the best lines, whereas Affleck gets to stare at people in disbelief, in frustration, and in a state of pleading. 

Scenes of the escaped hostages are few, and scenes of the embassy hostages are fewer.  In fact, the escaped hostages are played by actors that are only so vaguely recognizable, if at all, that they do not stand out as the characters to follow until they are literally standing on the streets of Tehran having left the building unnoticed.  The final fourth or third of the movie is Affleck trying to prepare the escapees for their big challenge at the Tehran airport, complete with new Canadian identities and backgrounds.  But even this "training montage" is fairly short.  We are not given any insight into what the daily lives of the escapees were like, trapped in relative luxury at the ambassador's house, and not any into the hostages' daily lives.  More importantly, we are given no insight into how the escapees dealt with knowledge that their conditions were certainly easier than the colleagues they left behind.  Perhaps a second viewing would be instructful, but I did nto get a sense of why they were able to escape while others were frantically trying to burn and shred sensitive material before the demonstrators reached them.  For whatever reason, there is no angst or existential crisis here.  Which makes it a very entertaining movie, probably!

Of course, the movie is fascinating to watch against the background of current events, particularly the deaths at the Libyan embassy.  Watching the demonstrators storm the embassy was pretty chilling.  In addition, with Iran and the potential negotiations in the news, a movie about the darkest period of U.S.-Iran relations stirs a lot of emotions.  I'm not sure how that cuts politically for either candidate or the negotiations, but it's awfully emotional.  That being said, no particular Iranian is portrayed terribly, and at least one is seen as very humanitarian.  And, the entire movie is prefaced with a recounting of history that basically says that conditions in Iran in 1979 were the product of extraordinarly misguided U.S. involvement.

Watching the movie with folks 20 years younger than me was also insightful.  I think I benefitted from knowing that no hostage was killed.  So, I was tense during the embassy scenes; but rationally, I knew the end.  I also knew that the hostages wouldn't be released for 444 days, so I took with a grain of salt characters in the film's assertions that the hostages would be home soon, a military rescue mission would be successful, etc.  However, when my young friends asked me why the hostages were finally released, I was at a loss.  In sixth grade, watching the simultaneous broadcast of the Reagan inauguration and the hostage release, my teachers left me with the impression that the Iranians were afraid of Reagan.  I am sure there is more to that story, including the Iran-Iraq war, but I guess I'll have to "read more about it."  One thing that was interesting to me from a political science standpoint was why the Iranians were so blase about Canadians.  "Oh, you're Canadian, not American.  That's great then."  We all seem the same to me.  Some countries get along with their neighbors.  And, the Canadian ambassador risked the lives of himself and his wife and sacrificed international relations between Canada and Iran.  Our good friends to the North.

Ar, go to the movies!

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