By Tom Demerly.
Bam! Out of the park. Argo delivers. In as subtle and dignified a way as Hollywood ever gets this may be the single best film ever on the U.S. intelligence service and what field officers do, or so we hear. It’s also a great period piece made even more relevant by the Global War on Terror.
Argo is the pretty-close-to-true, if it is true, they’d tell us but they’d have to… story of a recently declassified operation to bring U.S. hostages out of Iran in 1979 before the failed hostage rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw. Tense and technical, it is a tight and terrifying tear through Tehran to a time-sensitive near tragedy that ends in triumph.
Like the spy business itself subtlety is a part of the craft to Argo. That subtlety lends an authentic feel to the portrayal of the real-life lead character, CIA Field Officer and Intelligence Star recipient Anthony Mendez, by Ben Affleck. Affleck was flat as Jack Ryan in the film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears because Jack Ryan is a fictional character that Clancy built with a more dynamic personality. The real-life Mendez, as with most intelligence officers, was likely more opaque and aloof. Affleck may be a one-trick pony as the strong, quizzical type and the Mendez character is that trick to perfection. Sprinkle in some truly great, and more animated, characters executed by John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood execs who agree to craft a bogus film production as a cover story for the extraction and you have an incredible cast.
Argo does resort to some clichés in the bottom few minutes but the build-up is so skillful and cumulative it still works to perfection. You’ve seen this closing scene in Where Eagles Dare among others but you haven’t seen it like this.
As a time capsule Argo is worthwhile even though it is fiction purported to be based on fact. The film captures the tension and stalemate of the Iran Hostage Crisis with skill. The usual period newsreel footage is woven with late ’70’s-perfect wardrobe, hair and set dressing. The script and direction are strong despite a couple of clichés granted for effective storytelling.
In a “documentary” sense, even though it’s not, Argo captures the flailing of any intelligence service that is pushed outside its comfort zone during crisis. It does so with dignity and respect to the intelligence services and those who serve in them while remaining vibrant and action-packed. Argo is to the CIA what Spielberg’s Munich is to the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. It also illustrates how volatile a political system with a history of turbulence can be although any depiction of uprising in the Middle East misses the back story that sometimes makes the region look like a perpetual flashpoint.
If you are a fan of the intrigue/spy/thriller genre you’ll love Argo. It adds delightfully to the category and uniquely to the Hollywood catalog of CIA depictions. Although only based on fact it’s still a nice historical start point for discussion of the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Hopefully interest in this era and the current Global War on Terror will lead to great films about the failed Iran hostage rescue mission that drove the U.S. to rebuild its Special Operations forces and create the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). There is even a great book to spin a script off of, The Guts to Try by former U.S. Air Force Officer James Kyle. And while Hollywood is at it, they need to cover Ken Follett’s contracted account of the Ross Perot funded rescue of Paul Chiapparone and Bill Gaylord from a Tehran prison during the same era. The mission was led by one of the men responsible for modern Army Special Operations, Arthur “Bull” Simons, who led the raid on Son Tay prison during the Vietnam conflict. This past four decades has enough incredible true espionage and special operations tales to keep Hollywood busy for the next 30 years and Argo is part of those remarkable tales.