Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Film Review: Argo (2012)

"Okay, you got 6 people hiding out in a town of what, 4 million people, all of whom chant 'death to America' all the livelong day. You want to set up a movie in a week. You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living. Then you're gonna sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal, and you're gonna walk the Brady Bunch out of the most watched city in the world... We did suicide missions in the army that had better odds than this... We're going to need a script." - Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel in Argo as he accepts the role of producer for the fake film

This Warner Bros (official movie site) production is directed by and starring Ben Affleck who by the way is not Jewish. The film is produced by Grant Heslov, Affleck and George Clooney. Since Affleck's previous directing debuts, "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," he has become a critically acclaimed director and his fine directing skills are fully recognized in this film as it has been nominated by the Academy for a Best Picture Oscar and six other categories for a total of seven possible awards. Winning an award would not be his first contribution for an Oscar. He and Matt Damon scored an Academy Award for "Best Original Screenplay" for the 1997 film, Good Will Hunting.

This dramatic thriller is set in 1979 as the Iranian revolution nears to a climaxes while a critical mass of protesting Iranian students gain enough momentum to storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran. They hold 52 American hostages in a siege which lasted 444 days only releasing them just hours after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president in 1980. It is said that Reagan's camp negotiated with Iran to hold them just long enough to have Jimmy Carter lose his bid for re-election. This would be Reagan's first "Ian-Contra" secret scandal occurring even before he was sworn as president. Also remember Carter's disastrous attempt to rescue the hostages which may have secured Reagan's election.

During the quickly developing siege we witness anxious military guards holding protesters back just long enough for embassy workers to desperately burn secret documents and break harddrives. What I wish to know is what information did all said documents carry? Were they protecting secrets to shelter the U.S. from scrutiny or were their mission so treasonous to the Iranian people that those embassy workers were really saving their own skins?

Before proceeding with the remainder of this review, please allow me to retrospect (next two paragraphs) on some relevant historical background. Recall that in 1953 it was the CIA which engineered
(with Operation Ajax) the overthrow of the democratic government and its prime minister right out of the very same embassy which was stormed in 1979. The motivation was control over its rich petroleum industry. It was then that Rouhollah Khomeini who protested the coup by the U.S. was imprisoned for 18 months and later released but he was compelled to find exile outside of Iran as he continued his very vocal protest which was recorded to reach out to the Iranian people. He may have invented the vlog decades before the Internet reached a broad audience and YouTube came into existence.

The U.S. successfully installed the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was really a pro-U.S. and pro-U.K.dictator. He instilled an environment of fear and intimidation while ruling with an iron fist imprisoning and torturing his political enemies and even ordered troops to massacre protestors. This eventually inspired the 1979 Iranian revolution which resulted in exile for the Shah to the United States and the return of Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini as the Ayatollah. He promised democracy and oil production back in the hands of the Iranian people and Islam given back to a land which is 90% Muslim. For more details on Iran's recent history with CIA meddling please see the following video clip from the documentary entitled, Iran is Not the Problem (also embedded far below), which serves as an outstanding primer.

We all know how the  siege ended but most people are not aware of the other six Americans who were trapped inside Iran with no way to get out. Hence, this story is not about the hostages or recent CIA history in meddling in the affairs of Iran although such information is necessary to fully appreciate why Iranians harbored so much scorn for the U.S. It is about six Americans hiding behind enemy lines. These are the American refugees who
during the first hours of the siege sneaked out a back exit to the embassy. After being turned away by British and one other country's diplomats, they find temporary refuge in a leased townhouse of a Canadian ambassador.

Moreover it is the true story of a CIA agent, a very serious and cool mannered Tony Mendez played by Ben Affleck, who with a stroke of genius devises a plot to rescue all six refugees by masquerading them as Canadian film makers in Iran doing a location scout for a Canadian produced Hollywood movie. His supervisor, Jack O'Donnell played by actor Bryan Cranston who is best known for starring in the AMC series Breaking Bad, approves of his mission to fly to Los Angeles by reminding him, "Don't fuck up. The whole country is watching you. They just don't know it."

The story unfolds as he meets with John Chambers, a very jolly and funny Oscar winning Hollywood prosthetics and makeup guy played impeccably by John Goodman, who guides Mendez in who to meet and what they will need to produce a believable film that will never be produced. Chambers conveys to Mendez, "You can't build cover stories around a scrip that doesn't exist. You need a script. You need a producer... If you're going to do a twenty million dollars Star Wars rip off, you need somebody who is a somebody to put their name on it. Somebody respectable, with credits, who you can trust with classified information, who'll produce a fake movie, for free."

Chambers introduces Mendez to a big shot but lovable Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel performed flawlessly by Alan Arkin (nominated by the Academy for an Actor in a Supporting Role) whose character by the way is Jewish and whose favorite one-liner is a very funny, respectable, and non-malicious, "go fuck yourself." He tactfully exercises it several times when others disappoint him. He adds to it "...with all due respect" while negotiating with a writer to purchase the rights for the needed script that is entitled "Argo." At the time it was a script to a sci-fi movie sitting in limbo. In other scenes we also find that Chambers and Mendez are also tactfully catching the "go fuck yourself" bug. It later morphs to, "Argo fuck yourself."

Siegel and Mendez carefully orchestrate near all tasks needed to produce a believable film. They concoct a fake production company (Studio 6),
procure story boards for their fake film, and fill movie roles with actors who actually rehearse while in custom at a fancy press conference to generate attention from the press who will write articles about Argo in its initial production stages on periodicals like Variety Magazine. After all necessary tasks are completed, Mendez flies to Tehran to meet with the six refugees to train them on who they will masquerade as so that Iranian officials at the airport believe their stories and permit their departure.

Upon his arrival while driving in midtown Tehran Mendez is reminded on why his mission is a failure is not an option as his cab drives through an exhibition of a condemned man hanging from a crane for all to see. In a later scene while in the Canadian home, Mendez intensely grills the six refugees who were by now expected to know their characters. He interrogates one who cannot remember all his personal information, "What's your middle name? What's your middle name? What's your middle name? Shoot him! He's an American spy." It is a caution to every one that they must play their roles to perfection else a seemingly very minor mishap can result in all of their arrest and likely execution.

We witness all the twists and turns that a determined CIA agent must face to succeed in his operation including an intense moment where his minivan which was carrying all six American refugees is trapped in a sea of angry Iranian protesters taking to the streets. At one point the rescue plot is even called off by his supervisor O'Donnell while Mendez is in Iran who declares, "We're responsible for these people." In which O'Donnell replies, "What we are is required to follow orders. I'm sorry." After some deep thought Mendez calls back O'Donnell, "Somebody's responsible when things happen, Jack. I'm responsible. I'm taking things through."

The plot thickens to a climax as airport officials who are not very convinced intensely question all six and Mendez on who they are and their reasons for being in Iran. As affirmed before, it proves to be that moment in their lives in which all must perform their roles well enough to compete with any Academy Award winning actors else they would certainly be condemned to no different a fate than the man who was hanging from a crane. But airport officials do hesitantly allow them to depart. It is only minutes afterward that revolutionary guards discover that six refugees were staying at the Canadian home but have already left for their airport. As a result of this
police frantically chase the Swiss Air commercial jet which was carrying all of them and almost catch it as it is taking off on the runway.

So now I must ask is the CIA the good guys or the bad guys? They were willing to oppress an entire sovereign nation's people so that their government would serve American and British petroleum corporations but the CIA was almost willing to rescue six Americans. When we dismiss nationalism we find that they sacrificed millions of people's freedom for greed but considered to do the right thing with six others. And now the U.S. with the help of the CIA is possibly fabricating justifications and setting the stage for a U.S. invasion of Iran, a country which has not instigated a war in about 400 years. Not surprisingly Israel is fully endorsing such a program.

In a film in which Ben Affleck's character rarely smiles but he does impress us with a 16th of a smile (one corner of lips show a hint of a smile) only after all hostages are safely in a plane which has departed; I give this fine piece of cinema a most perfect Bo Derek 10 out of 10 and a prediction to win an Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday Febrauary, 24, 2013. Roger Ebert
over at Chicago Sun Times also gives this film a perfect four out of four stars, Argo (R).

See the official movie trailer below and another short video of a great interview with Ben Affleck on directing and starring in Argo. Much more information on this film can be found at it's Wikipedia page, Argo (2012 film), and its Internet Movie Database entry, Argo (2012) - IMDb.

And finally please view the next fine documentary which defends Iran as a non-aggressive state.

The image above, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter, shows us Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez and the gentleman on the right is a recent photo of the real Tony Mendez. For information on the real CIA agent Tony Mendez please visit his Wikipedia page, Tony Mendez. Top image courtesy of

© 2013 Jules Manson — All Rights Reserved

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