By Ray Bennett
TORONTO – For anyone with a memory, it’s hard to think of the CIA as the good guys but they are in Ben Affleck’s gripping thriller “Argo”, which tells of the retrieval from Tehran of a group of US embassy workers during the Iran crisis of 1979.
The agency and in particular one “exfiltration” expert named Tony Mendez are depicted as the heroes of the escape of the US citizens from a city in turmoil overrun by gun-toting and bloodthirsty revolutionaries. That’s no surprise as Chris Terrio’s screenplay draws from Mendez’s autobiography and producer-director Affleck plays him in the movie.
The picture has to invent the moments of highest tension, however, and it does a disservice to the Canadian diplomats who displayed enormous courage when they protected their US counterparts in the face of mortal danger. The majority of embassy workers were taken hostage by the Iranians while a handful managed to get out and were sheltered for 79 days by the Canadians.
“Argo” focuses on the cover story that Mendez devised in order to fly out the embassy workers, a bizarrely effective piece of Hollywood prestidigitation that involved the pretense of a Canadian science-fiction movie to be shot in Tehran.
In a series of funny scenes, Mendez suggests to his CIA bosses that he can fabricate the production of the film with the help of two Hollywood types – played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin – and with faked passports convince the Iranians that the embassy workers are members of the production team there to scout locations.
It’s tense and entertaining as Affleck demonstrates further mastery of filmmaking skills and also gives an assured and unmannered performance as the agent in charge. In a preamble to the story, he presents a clear-eyed report on US culpability in the excesses of the dictatorship that led to the Iranian revolution to the extent that for a moment you want to cheer for the rebels. They soon resort to type but with Rodrigio Prieto’s unfussy cinematography and music by Alexandre Desplat that underscores the tension and the conundrums of the Middle East, it delivers as a thriller.
The scenes of greatest suspense, though, involve a visit by the group to the busy marketplace and a mix-up over their tickets at the airport as they attempt to fly to safety. Both are fabrications in the grand Hollywood tradition.
Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who with his wife and personal household, risked grave danger to house some of the Americans, says he would never have allowed the group to put themselves at such risk in the market and he booked the airplane tickets himself.
Taylor is played by Victor Garber, who resembles the diplomat as he is today, but at the time he was obviously 30 years younger. Another key figure in the actual events was Canadian diplomat John Sheardown [who died on Jan. 4, 2013] who was the first to be contacted by the Americans and who did not hesitate to help. He and his wife Zena housed half of the fugitives but they are not mentioned at all in the film.
At the end of “Argo”, the CIA team at Langley reflect on their success and comment wryly on the fact that no-one would ever hear about it because all the credit would go to the Canadians. Taylor was feted at home and in the US and a 1981 Canadian TV movie, “Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper” starring Gordon Pinsent celebrated him but did not have the complete facts.
The Hollywood aspect in “Argo” is entertaining and there is no question that Mendez was clever and courageous but to claim that the Canadians involved did not deserve much credit is shameful.
Note: After the TIFF screening, Affleck apologised for this impression and changed the words on the film’s closing titles to better reflect the truth.
[Warner Bros. will release “Argo” on Blu-ray Disc and DVD in the UK on March 3.]
Opens: US Oct. 12, UK Nov. 7, Warner Bros.; Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy; Director: Ben Affleck;
Writer: Chris Terrio, based on a selection from “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez and a Wired magazine article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman; Producers: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney; Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto; Production designer: Sharon Seymour; Music: Alexandre Desplat; Costumes: Jacqueline West; Editor: William Goldenberg; Executive producers: David Klawans, Nina Wolarsky, Chris Brigham, Chay Carter, Graham King, Tim Headington; Production: Smokehouse Pictures; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; 120 minutes.