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Escape from Tehran (ARGO): Ben Affleck's geo political thriller, for which he won two awards in January, unearths an unknown chapter of the Iran US hostage ordeal.

BETTER KNOWN FOR HIS BOSTON-STEEPED crime thrillers--The Town and Gone Baby Gone--few imagined Ben Affleck at the helm, both as director and actor, of a geo political thriller set in the Middle East. Yet Argo is clearly the Hollywood hearthrob's most ambitious film to date, but one in which his narrative struggles to find the right balance between factual history and lighthearted humour. Co-produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Argo is loosely based on a former CIA operative's account of an extravagant operation to smuggle a handful of American diplomats, hiding at the Canadian ambassador's official residence out of Tehran, shortly after Iranian students stormed the US embassy in 1979. The mission was kept secret for nearly two decades until President Bill Clinton declassified it in 1997.

The film centres on Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck), then a young CIA exfiltration expert, at a cross-roads in his personal life (separated from his wife and son), who is called upon to develop an escape plan for the six US diplomats hiding at ambassador Ken Taylor's house. With the help of trusted Hollywood contacts, make up artist John Chambers and struggling producer Lester Siegal, Mendez comes up with the idea of creating a phoney Canadian sci-fi film project dubbed 'Argo', claiming to shoot in Iran, as a scheme to smuggle the Americans out as its production crew.

What made the scheme plausible was that by the mid-1970s Iran already had a booming film industry, hosting both European and Hollywood productions. Had the Ayatollah Khomeini-inspired revolution not occured, George Lucas could have very likely relocated the outdoor scenes of his Star Wars trilogy in Iran's Tabas desert rather than in Tunisia's Tataouine.

Although Argo doesn't aim at being a history lesson, the opportunity of introducing Iran's complex history, to a non-Iranian audience, is lost in the animated storyboard, through a series of inaccurate cliches. Intentional or not, at worst it illustrates the level of ignorance displayed at times by Americans when it comes to taking any interest beyond their own cultural horizon.

However, the overall accuracy in recreating the US Embassy takeover by fanatical students and armed militias is fascinating to watch. Scenes depicting a nervous staff shredding highly confidential reports into ribbons, while outside military personal guard the entrance, dispersing the crowd with tear gas, admonished not to open fire but fearing the wrath of the vengeful mob, truly sends cold shivers down one's spine. Argo perfectly renders the social and political climate both in Iran and in the United States, whilst offering an interesting contrast between life in eccentric Hollywood and CIA bureaucracy in Washington D.C., and Tehran's paranoiac Bazar, gradually sinking deep into religious fundamentalism.

There is a healthy detachment however, throughout the movie, as to how the different protagonists relate to actual events, which often escape their own understanding. Be it the ordinary gun-crazed american redneck interviewed by NBC, claiming how much he wants to get even with the hostage takers but, when questioned, can hardly put Iran on the map; the gay Hollywood agent who can't tell the difference between Iran and Iraq but finds Tony Mendez's beard 'very sexy', or the clueless diplomats on location, wondering how they never predicted the Shah's downfall.

Even the embassy staff, many of whom hardly speak Farsi, find it difficult to engage in heated debates as to why the revolution even happened or why their country supported the Shah without understanding whether or not it was the right thing to do. All they want at best is 'to get the hell out of the damn country'.

This remoteness is best illustrated in one funny scene towards the film's conclusion when John Goodman quotes Karl Marx's line about << tragic history repeating itself as a farce >>, to which Alan Arkin replies, 'Groucho said that?'

Argo misses the point in that it directs the audience's empathy essentially towards the American characters but rarely towards the Iranians who apart from one (The Canadian ambassador's household maid) are reduced to one dimensional personalities.

Argo is not the first film centred on the Iran-US hostage crisis of 1979, which led to an ordeal of 444 days for the 52 American diplomats and staff. Two television dramas come to mind. On Wings of Eagles (1986), starring Richard Crenna and Burt Lancaster, was based on Ken Follet's novel about magnate Ross Perot's personally financed bold attempt to rescue executives of an important Texas Corporation held hostage in Tehran. The other 1ran: Days of Crisis (1991) based on Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor's account as well as one US diplomat John Limbert's personal ordeal was set at the time of the Carter administration's failed rescue mission which ended tragically with the death of eight american pilots in an aircraft collision over the Iranian desert.

If as in the above films, Argo, does ring to a 'star spangled banner' patriotic tune, it nevertheless does it with far more detachment and a touch of humor, hence avoiding an entirely propaganda oriented delivery. Although topical and entertaining, the film is first and foremost a tribute to the men and women who professionally serve their country often at the risk of their own lives. Its first screening at the Toronto Film Festival coincided with the killing in Benghazi of Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, along with three members of his staff. However unintended, providing a timely yet tragic reminder of the dangerous predicament diplomats from all manner of nations sometimes face during their missions abroad.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic/CINEMA
Author:Kadivar, Darius
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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