The Great Escape
Having recently enjoyed the fantasty spy world of Skyfall, here follows a far more down to earth portrayal of espionage in Argo (directed by and starring Ben Affleck).
This time, however, instead of tuxedoes and Aston Martins, we have cigarette-filled ashtrays, beige-coloured clunky phones and insane sideburns. It’s far closer to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than Mission Impossible.
Argo is the story of how, in 1979, the American government responded to the hostage crisis in Iran – a result of the Islamic Revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. When their embassy was overrun by civilians angered by their unwillingness to return the Shah to Iran, some of the embassy staff hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house. It’s Ben Affleck’s CIA agent, Tony Mendez, who comes up with a rescue plan which is so bonkers it’s brilliant. And it all really happened.
Affleck is a modern day Moses, sent into a hostile land to bring his people out – his boss even calls his assignment a ‘Moses Mission’. His tenacity and ingenuity is guided by no other ideal than the principle that this is his job (a calling, since he’s done it before), and that the people involved deserve every chance to have their lives spared. In a confident display of understated acting, Affleck brings a quiet strength to his determined agent. There is no gun-waving or show-off martial arts. He is more George Smiley than Jason Bourne.
Iran has rarely left the news since 1979, with America demonizing them at every opportunity. I was half expecting a demolition job, but instead Affleck opens the film with a brief history of Iran which highlights the often overlooked fact that Iran had free and fair elections back in 1951. They elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, a secular democrat. But because he started nationalising the oil companies, the United Kingdom asked the United States to intervene. The CIA organised a coup which installed Mohammed Reza Pahlevi as the Shah of Iran. For the next 26 years he lived in opulence, all the while subverting the country’s poorer classes. It was only a matter of time before the population rose up. In a way, Iran was the first ‘Arab Spring’- although in this case it’s important to remember that they’re actually Persian. They speak Farsi not Arabic.
Affleck’s attempt at providing a semi-sympathetic context for the righteous revolutionary rage is commendable if ultimately a little undermined by his simplistic portrayal of the actual Iranians involved in the story. They’re either shouting fanatics or loyal supporters of the West. America may be responsible for this mess in the first place but it’s also America who helps saves the day in Affleck’s film. If I was a teacher grading his movie I’d have to say, “B+ for making a genuinely entertaining film. As for the politics, it’s a C- but you’re going in the right direction.”
I had a personal interest in Argo because it covers the events which affected me as a child. I was born in Tehran in 1977. My father, a South African diplomat, was stationed in Iran on his first posting overseas. My family albums are full of photos of me crawling and toddling around the parks, bazaars and squares of the city. In 1979 as the unrest grew, and more and more foreigners were assaulted, my mother returned with me to South Africa. My father remained behind to tie up loose ends at our embassy and residences, making sure that as many South Africans as possible could get out. About four months after my mother had left, my father was finally able to catch a plane home to Johannesburg.
As both director, Ben Affleck does a superb job evoking that period in history. He balances the seriousness of the hostage drama with the comedy moments of organising his escape plan. It’s a deft juggling act, but one he manages to perform successfully. His attention to detail is probably on a par with David Fincher’s Zodiac – another film to reconstruct the 70s perfectly.
But why has no one told Ben Affleck to grow a beard sooner? That man looks good in a beard. There is a theory among movie critics that the best thing ever to happen to Affleck was Gigli. Do you remember it: the cringe-inducing collaboration with then-girlfriend J-Lo? It was appalling. Affleck’s reputation as an actor was shot to hell. His once-promising career was in freefall. All he could do was stand on the sidelines and watch as friend and screen-writing partner Matt Damon became a formidable leading man. The whole mess did however make Mr Affleck decide to try his hand at directing. And what do you know? The man is a natural. Both Gone Baby Gone and The Town balanced suspense with pathos.
Argo continues that promising trajectory. Entertaining and certainly very tense, it’s a film which anyone can enjoy. Affleck’s principled agent is an old-fashioned hero. Don’t leave the cinema too quickly or you’ll miss the original photos of everyone involved. It’s hard to believe it all really happened.