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film review: argo

“Ah go fuck yourself”*

This line would seem to sum up the United States’ attitude to many things in recent years – take the government/CIA’s attitude to any country that had oil/information worth exploiting (and anyone who might have gotten in the way of this) – and Hollywood’s attitude to anyone outside of Hollywood. However, in Argo, Ben Affleck’s third feature in the role of director, where  some wily veterans of Hollywood and members of the CIA work together to hatch a rescue plot only more fraught with danger than it is absurd, show that the U.S.’s brash propensity for going in guns a-blazin’ style, is thankfully, still at least only partly a stereotype.

Let’s start with a little background.

From 1951 to 1953, Iran had a democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who sought to bring about progressive social and political reforms. Sound good? You’d assume the U.S. would think so, being supposed bastion of liberal democracy that it is. You would be wrong though, and all for the sake of a little, three-letter word (starts with ‘o’ and rhymes with ‘turmoil’… any guesses?) As it turned out – and unfortunately so for him – one of Mosaddegh’s policies was to nationalise the Iranian oil industry, which had, since 1913, been under control by the British government. The CIA flew into the rescue of what would become British Petroleum and supported a coup that would oust the Prime Minister. Iran saw a change again in 1979, when the U.S.-backed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (whose power had been strengthened in 1953 after the ousting of his rival, Mosaddegh), was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution. The theocratic ruler, the Ayatollah Khomeini, then took leadership of the country (and welcomed back the hijab with welcome arms, which had been outlawed in 1936). In this climate of turmoil, where anti-American feeling was at a zenith, a group of fifty-two Americans were held hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran for over a year, after it was stormed by hundreds of enraged students. A group of six Americans were able to escape the Embassy however, and seek refuge in the house of the Canadian Ambassador. This is where Argo begins.

Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA covert operations specialist who must figure out a way to get the Americans out of the Canadian ambassador’s house – but with American flags burning, hangings going on in the streets, and airports monitored by choleric, rifle-wielding soldiers, this will prove difficult to say the least. To add to the sense of urgency, a team of nimble-fingered children have been employed around the clock to reassemble the trolley-loads of documents that were shredded minutes before the storming of the embassy – documents that reveal exactly who was working there, and that will therefore reveal exactly who isn’t being held captive. The race is on to get the Americans out before the revolutionary guards track them down.

Admitting that it is ‘the best bad idea [they] have’, Mendez and a couple of Hollywood insiders, make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (the bitingly funny Alan Arkin) put together a plan to set up a fake film studio to publicise the upcoming release of a fake science-fiction film named Argo. For their part, the hostages are to pose as a Canadian film crew and with the help of Mendez, will be able to return home safely from their ‘exotic location scouting’.

This is the kind of story that you wish was true, if only to be able to admire human ingenuity as being more than merely capable of producing an interesting film script. Actually, it is true (that is to say, based on a true story – to be fair, apparently the Canadian government had a far greater role on the operation than the film led on). Far be it from me to endorse the actions of the CIA or the U.S. government when it comes to foreign policy, but this is surely one example where they were able to not only achieve a desired outcome, but to do so in a bloodless, creative manner.

Argo is well-acted, well-shot, suspenseful and at times comically relieving. Don’t want to see it? ‘Argo fuck yourself!’

*Rest assured, this seemingly gratuitous use of the word ‘fuck’ will make sense if you see the film. Go on, do it!

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