Sunday, October 14, 2012

“Argo”: Thrilling, Chilling

Ben Affleck directs and stars in this based-on-history drama about six US diplomats who escaped the American embassy in Teheran in 1979 before the building was overrun by rioting Islamic fundamentalists. Fifty-two of their countrymen were held hostage for 444 days, released only after Jimmy Carter left office. The six who got away holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Real-life CIA operative Antonio “Tony” Mendez (Affleck) orchestrated their escape from Teheran.

“Argo” begins documentary-style and ends as a thriller, but in the middle there are laugh-out-loud comedy and brief, defining moments of heart-tugging humanity. The latter will stick with me longer than the thrills or the yucks.

With a journalistic voice-over, the opening minutes of “Argo” refresh our memory about the 1979 hostage crisis: how the Shah of Iran retook power in Iran thanks to a CIA-led coup after Iran nationalized its oil industry; how the Shah’s regime held Iran in its iron fist for the next quarter-century; how Islamic fundamentalists led by the Ayatollah Khomeini finally forced him from power in 1979. Shots of contemporary news reports by the likes of Ted Koppel and a young Tom Brokaw reinforce the sense that this is reality movie-making.

To see the rioting reenacted had a visceral impact. Yes, here is the horrible ferocity of Islamic fundamentalism manipulated by masterful political puppeteers like Khomeini. This is why we must pick our (hopefully well-chosen) fights. The same forces were unleashed last month in Benghazi.

When the scene shifted to Hollywood 30 minutes into the film—after the capture of the embassy and after the first bootless arguments at the State Department and CIA about what to do—I felt the collective blood pressure in the movie theatre drop by about 30 points. My BP did anyway. Mendez convinces his CIA superiors to organize a bogus film project—a sci-fi thriller set in the Middle East—as a pretext to fly to Teheran, collect the six diplomats, and fly them out again. Suddenly we are spending quality time with Alan Arkin as a Hollywood producer repulsed by his own sleaziness and John Goodman as a make-up artist specializing in outer-space-monster prosthetics. Whenever they’re on screen, the two take over “Argo” and declare it a laugh-out-loud comedy.

Except in a couple of choice moments. Arkin, the ultimate cynic, is in mid-spiel about something absurd when he passes a television report showing Muslim terror in the Mideast. He instantly drops his mask of comedy, and we are suddenly in the presence of a good Jew appalled. Arkin has another moment of deep humanity later while talking about his two grown and alienated children.

Tony Mendez’s ten-year-old son, living separately with Mendez’s estranged wife, provides poignant moments too, though these struck me as more calculated and formulaic—the thriller hero needing to have a love interest or at least a life. Still, they brought “Argo” down (or up) to a truly human level, both before and after the nail-biting climax.

Compelling end credits match up footage from the film with documentary images from 1979, demonstrating how true-to-life the movie is. Katie and I saw it last night for our 28th wedding anniversary. While we might have chosen something more comfortable, I’m not sure we could have found any current movies as entertaining and informative.

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