In Argo, Ben Affleck’s new film about the rescue of American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis, there’s a scene where Affleck, playing a CIA officer named Tony Mendez, an expert on hostage rescues, and his boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), go to the State Department for a meeting. Outside the State Department, there’s this statue, a really weird one; sort of looks like a skinny guy flinging the world like it’s a discus. I love that image, and spent an hour trying to find it on the internet; if anyone knows the statue, I’d be grateful for the link. It seems such a perfect representation of American foreign policy, itself best described by one three syllable word, the first half of which is ‘cluster,’ and the second half of which starts with an ‘f.’ But release of the film now, in October 2012, a month after the murder of Chris Stevens and three other American diplomats in Libya, gives it an immediacy Affleck could not have anticipated. That’s American foreign policy; often wrong-headed and short-sighted and risk-averse, but executed by men and women of extraordinary courage and dedication. The film honors the diplomatic corps, while also subtly and smartly criticizing the policies that put that corps at risk.
The film begins with a brief history of US interventions in Iran, starting with the election of Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1951, and his subsequent ousting, in a coup d’etat orchestrated by the CIA, at the request of MI6, in 1953. Mossaddegh was a progressive; introduced social security and land reforms, workman’s comp, unemployment benefits, but he also nationalized the oil industry, which had previously been owned by British Petroleum. This led to the always combustible charge that he was a communist, and to him being deposed, which led in turn to the brutal reign of the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi. The Shah was pro-Western, pro-American, and he did try to secularize his Shia nation; he was also pro-getting filthy rich, and his secret police were vicious. And we propped the bastard up for twenty-five years.
Affleck’s film zips through that history pretty quickly, with an animation style that reflects Marjane Satrapi’s brilliant graphic novel and film Persepolis, also about Iran during this period. Affleck then shows the storming of the US embassy in 1979, the desperation of the foreign service personnel to destroy sensitive files, the marine security forces, who know that firing into the crowd will only inflame tensions and get everyone killed, and the escape of six of them, who sneak out a back door, and are taken in by the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
So 47 American diplomats are being held in the embassy, in constant fear for their lives, badly mistreated. And 6 hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador, knowing that if they’re found, they’ll be immediately and summarily executed by a crowd inflamed against Americans. The film is about Tony Mendez and his rescue of those 6. And the best idea the CIA and State Department can think of–the ‘best bad idea we have,’ as Mendez puts it–is to have Mendez enter Iran as a film producer, and have the diplomats pose as his film crew, in Iran to location scout for a movie. And so much of the film shifts to LA, to Tony’s friend, Academy Award winning make-up artist John Chambers, (John Goodman) and his producer friend Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), as they use CIA money to create a fake production company, preparing to make an atrocious sci-fi flick, Argo. (This all happened, BTW, and Argo was the film title and script they went with.)
At one point, Affleck looks at all the stuff they’ve generated–a poster, business cards, the script itself–and says, ‘it’s not enough. We could just come up with all this. We need something more real.’ So they arrange a table reading of the script, with actors in costume, with Variety reporters there, and Variety does a big story on it. This could be a really funny scene, honestly; the costumes are ridiculous, the script atrocious, the nebbishy Variety reporter perfectly skeptical. And the ‘Hollywood parody’ scenes in the film are pretty funny. But Affleck is too savvy to let them only be funny. He keeps cross-cutting to events in Iran, reminding us that the stakes are genuinely life or death. That’s one of the things I respect and admire about this film: Ben Affleck never lets the political overwhelm the personal, the comic bits overwhelm the serious moments; he controls tone beautifully. But it is a political film, for all that, driven by genuine outrage over the unnecessary and foolish decisions that led us to that moment in 1979/80, the humiliation of our nation and the outrage of the Iranians and the fanaticism of the Ayatollah. And a nuclear threat today.
We even see a hint of the forces that drove those decisions. Near the end, Affleck/Mendez is in Iran, ready to depart. His diplomat/film crew is already freaked out. The day before, the Iranian Cultural Ministry had insisted on meeting them, ostensibly to help them scout locations in the Tehran bazaar. An angry crowd forms, furious that the diplomat pretending to be Argo‘s production designer had taken photographs of a shop, and the diplomats, even aided by their Iranian Cultural liaison, barely escaped with their lives. So, it’s later that night, and the Canadian ambassador, Taylor (something of a Canadian national hero even today), pulls Mendez aside and says ‘look, we have to leave, it’s not going to be safe for us much longer,’ and at that moment, a phone call comes from Washington. The op has been cancelled. Mendez can’t fly them out. Washington is too afraid of the bad publicity if it fails. Mendez is to drop them off at the American embassy, to join the other hostages. Affleck/Mendez pleads with Cranston/O’Donnell. He thinks it’s a death sentence. But there’s nothing to be done. And Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador, has also been told, so he’s torn.
And here it is, at least one quite effective critique of American foreign policy, indicting it for cowardice. What will the press think? What narrative will this advance? It’s one of the reasons the US has so consistently supported complete thugs; because of precisely these sorts of PR fears. It’s why LBJ, for example, could not, could not, pull out of Vietnam, for fear of seeming weak on communism. It’s why the US supported thugs like Mubarek in Egypt–we couldn’t seem weak in the war on terror, and he was an ally in that effort. The long-term consequences of our support for vicious dictators–the way the people of their disastrously misruled countries see the US as their enemy–doesn’t deter us.
In Argo, it’s small scale–we have to sacrifice 6 American lives, because we’ll take a smaller public relations hit if they just die, instead of dying in a failed rescue attempt. But that’s the reasoning Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler), Carter’s chief-of-staff uses. When Mendez then disobeys orders and rescues his hostages anyway, and O’Donnell has to hustle to provide him with the support he was promised, the movie moves into high gear. The last half hour of Argo is as exciting as any half hour of any movie I’ve ever seen. Affleck handles pace as perfectly as he handles every other aspect of filmmaking here. But it’s rooted in a small but telling critique of US foreign policy.
There are two more moments of the movie that stick with me. One is a short but brilliant scene between Sahar (Sheila Vand), the Canadian ambassador, Taylor’s, housekeeper, and one of Khomeini’s soldiers. The Taylors know that Sahar knows about the Americans they’re hiding, but they don’t know if they can trust her. The Revolutionary Guard forces are suspicious, but don’t know. They come to the gate of the residence, and, quietly, subtly interrogate Sahar. She lies to protect the Americans; she’ll be killed if that ever is known. A beautifully acted, high stakes scene.
Another, though, comes at the airport. Of the six escapees, one, Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham) is the most skeptical of Mendez’ ability to pull the whole thing off. He comes across as a bit of a whiner, honestly, a bit of a weenie. He’s also the only one of them who speaks Farsi. But at the airport, with Revolutionary Guards openly skeptical about the whole movie-making cover story, Lijek steps up, tells the story of the movie in Farsi so energetically, he saves their lives.
It’s a lovely moment, and it reinforces another of the movie’s themes. US foreign policy may be misguided. But the career diplomats tasked with executing it, the people in our embassies, are extraordinary. A month after Chris Stevens was murdered, Ben Affleck releases a film that honors his memory, by honoring the men and women like him who serve our country so ably. Argo ends up being more, much more, than just a brilliant film.