Friday, October 19, 2012

"Argo": A Thriller with a Perspective

“Argo” is a thriller worthy of the best of John le Carre. The only difference is that this movie is based not on fiction but on facts, with some liberties taken here and there to keep the story taut.

On November 4, 1979, six Americans escaped from the U.S. embassy in Tehran through a back door when loyalists of Ayatollah Khomeini overran it. Iranians were angry at the American government for refusing to hand over the Shah, who had been allowed into the country by the Carter administration for medical treatment.

The Americans found shelter in the residence of Ken Taylor, Canada’s Ambassador to Iran. While the U.S. and world attention was focused on the 52 hostages from the embassy, the CIA and the State Department began working on a plan to fly the six diplomats out of Iran. The plan they hatched was as improbable as any Hollywood production.

In fact, the plan, proposed by CIA’s disguise and exfiltration expert Tony Mendes, did involve a fake movie-production company in Hollywood called “Studio Six Productions.”
Mendez came up with a cover story for the six Americans: They were actors scouting locations in the Middle East for filming a science-fiction flick called “Argo,” (a Middle-Eastern “Star Wars” in which the fearless and flying locals try to free their homeland from foreign tyrants), with Iran as one of the potential sites.

When Mendez explained his plan to the top brass at the State Department and the CIA, they weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry at its utter absurdity. But Mendez, played superbly and with understated sensibility by actor-director Ben Affleck, convinced them that “this is the best bad idea we have.”

The Operation was a go.

Once “producer” Mendez lands at the Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran, things become unpredictable even by Hollywood standards. One of the six Americans rejects his plan outright. Revolutionary guards track his every move. In an ancient bazaar the day before the escape, he and his group of six almost get beaten up.

But the real zinger comes when, at the last moment, the CIA informs Mendez that he must abort his plan. A military operation to rescue all the 58 hostages is in the works by the Carter administration. The Hollywood caper must cease immediately.

I will not spoil the movie by telling you what ensues, other than to say that the truth turns out to be not only stranger than fiction but a good deal more exciting. The movie draws you in as it alternates between street scenes in Tehran where young revolutionaries denounce the United States and kill Iranians suspected of treachery, the claustrophobic confinement of the Americans and the tension at the State Department and the CIA. The final chase scene sets the pulse racing and the heart pounding. Two aging Hollywood honchos, played brilliantly by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, oversee the logistics from the Hollywood end and provide comic relief. (Lamenting the seeming futility of American efforts, one remarks to the other, “John Wayne has been in the ground six months and this is what’s left of America!”)

“Argo” impresses because of the way Affleck handles the explosive hostage issue in the context of history. In 1950, Iranians democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddeq as their Prime Minister. One of the first things Mosaddeq did was to nationalize Iran’s oil companies to benefit ordinary Iranians. In 1953, however, he was overthrown in a CIA-engineered coup, followed by the installation of the Reza Shah Pahlavi as Iran’s absolute monarch.

Until his fall in 1979, the Shah ruled Iran with an iron hand. Savak, the secret organization he built to enforce his will, became synonymous with murderous savagery. In 23 years, SAVAK summarily executed thousands of Iranian men and women to keep any insurgency under control. Meanwhile, the Shah continued to enjoy unconditional support from successive U.S. governments.

When Ayatollah Khomeini assumed supreme power in 1979, he unleashed his own brand of terror. Vengeance, in the form of beheadings, hanging and torture, became the order of the day. A severe austerity descended on the nation and Iranians were left wondering if a middle path would ever be in their destiny.

Director Affleck does not ignore the historical context for the intense animosity Iranians felt toward America. As Argo’s screenwriter Chris Terrio aptly put it, “What I hope people come away with is the complexity of what happened, the fact that there is no antagonist here. On all sides of this, there were people trying to do the right thing.”

Iran is again in the news now, 33 years after the hostage crisis. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Citing the “mortal danger” posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, Israel under Bibi Netanyahu has been hell-bent on launching a unilateral, preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Only the stern opposition by the Obama administration and top U.S. military leaders have kept the intransigent Israeli leader under control.

The middle path for Iran and its leaders seem as elusive as ever, in spite of what history has taught the nation in the past three decades. The Republican Party, particularly in light of the bellicose statements from Mitt Romney vis-à-vis Iran, appears equally impervious to history’s lessons.

President Obama has said that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” But what he has also said is that sanctions are already taking a terrible toll on Iran and that its leaders cannot ignore its effects for long. Nuclear experts have confirmed that Iran is nowhere near building a nuclear arsenal, despite the bluster of its leaders, and that diplomacy, backed by sanctions, remains the best option for containing Iran’s nuclear ambition.

America cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of its past in Iran, no matter how much goading it has to withstand from Israel. If “Argo” can communicate this message, however subliminally, it will have served a far more ambitious goal than keeping viewers entertained and enthralled.

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