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Monday, Oct. 8, 2012

Argo

Ben Affleck dramatizes rescue of Americans in Iran

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The mob that gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, Iran, to demand the extradition of the Shah, who had fled to America for cancer treatment as his regime crumbled, burned flags and effigies and punched the air with angry fists. But on Nov. 4, 1979, the strident protest gained violent momentum as the crowd surged over the wall, broke the gates and stormed the compound, taking 60 Americans hostage.

As the days dragged on, America seemed an impotent giant against the Islamic fanatics as the Carter administration lost face and the Khomeini regime threatened to try the hostages as spies. But there was a particle of good news that scarcely anyone knew at the time. Six embassy staffers slipped out through a rear exit during the attack and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Months later the news broke that the six Americans had snuck out of Iran, but only years later was the secret of their rescue revealed.

Based on published accounts of the event, director Ben Affleck's Argo dramatizes the elaborate scheme resulting in the return (well before the release of the 60 embassy hostages) of the Foreign Service officers hidden by the Canadians. Affleck stars as the story's hero, CIA agent Tony Mendez, depicted as just about the only man in Washington who could find Iran on the map, much less understand the history and culture. As Chris Terrio's screenplay tells it, Mendez's epiphany occurred while watching a late-night rerun of Battle for the Planet of the Apes. To provide cover for the rescue operation, he would create a fake Canadian movie production company headed by real Hollywood insiders pretending to shoot a grade-Z sci-fi flick in Iran for its exotic locations (mimicking Star Wars' desert world). It’s incredible and, apparently, not far from the truth.

Affleck plays Mendez in a capable low key, the way you’d hope a secret agent would behave when confronted by the prospect of torture and death. But the best lines and memorable scene-stealing belong to his Hollywood confederates, semi-retired producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman), who once won an Oscar for best makeup but has been reduced to shepherding sci-fi schlock on the back end of the studio lot. Arkin is superb as the cynic who still cares. “John Wayne’s in the grave six months and this is what’s left of America!” he says, dismayed by his national security assignment as the fake producer of a fake motion picture. But as Mendez reminds everyone, it’s the best of all the bad ideas for getting the diplomats out.

The Americans hidden by Canada’s ambassador were in almost constant danger, and their escape was a profile in courage, yet many of Argo’s suspenseful moments seem contrived—as calculated as anything in, well, a Hollywood movie. Audiences should be careful about taking Argo too literally, but at least the screenplay converts a true adventure into a compelling, edge-of-the-seat drama shot through with comic relief. And Arkin and Goodman have a grand old time spoofing the entertainment industry they know so well. Now, if only contemporary Hollywood could team up with the U.S. government to solve the pressing problems of our day…