33 years ago today the US Embasy in Tehran was overrun by student protests. As the students poured into the compound six American diplomats escaped from the embassay through a back door on to the unruly streets of Tehran.
Argo, the latest film by Ben Afflect, which premiered this fall at the Toronto Film Festival tells the tale of how they ended up hidden int he Canadian embassy and the unprobable manner in which they escaped the country. This fall at TIFF the buzz was all about how Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who spirited the six hostages he had hidden in his house had been snubbed in the film - his historical role seemingly diminished in favour of the CIA.
In fairness a generation of Canadians had grown up only knowing part of the tale. Sure Taylor and his wife shielded the six Americans, risking diplomatic status and possibly their lives to do so. He arranged Canadian passports for the diplomats but the Argo plan to get them out was never made public until 1997.
The movie is based upon the tale woven by Tony Menedez, the CIA operative who devised the plan and infiltrated Iran to make it happen.
Apparently for Affleck the most exciting thing about premiering his thriller Argo at TIFF was this: the hometown crowd got the Canadian jokes. Not only did Argo get a standing ovation from the opening-night crowd, it garnered substantial Oscar buzz at a festival known for being an Academy Awards bellwether.
If you think you know the story, think again: the movie jumps with new information based on recently declassified documents that put Hollywood and the CIA in bed together. Affleck keeps the performances strong and the action clipping along. Proof that a story’s working: It holds you in suspense even though you know the outcome.
The CIA and Hollywood working together to save the lives of captive Americans in strife torn Iran?
A lesser film might not be able to handle the drastic shifts in tone between the scenes set in L.A., which heads towards broad comedy, and those in Iran, a more taught life-or-death affair. As Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who both designed and executed the plan, Affleck provides a steady presence, maintaining an air of professionalism no matter what the situation. Even in his near-parody scenes with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), the two Hollywood insiders who help Mendez create a convincing front for his fake movie, Mendez keeps down to brass tacks, the weight of the task given to him clearly felt.
This all leads to a finale at the airport that takes a page from a Hollywood thriller (and a broad swipe at historical record apparently). Last-minute phone calls, suspicious revolutionary guards and a runway chase scene keep the audience on the edge of their seats despite the houseguests’ escape being obvious (yup, we all know that they get away). It all seems too good to be true…and of course, this time it is. In real life, Mendez and the house guests proceeded on to a plane and out of the country quite uneventfully.
What can you expect - it's Hollyood!
Naturally, it is not a perfect movie. I've already mentioned that it is
not historically accurate. Another example is in one shot that featured a
dilapidated HOLLYWOOD sign overlooking the Los Angeles Basin.
The sign was restored to its former glory in November 1978, 14 to 15
months before Tony Mendez's arrival in Southern California.
Flawed or not, I cannot deny that I found the film to be one of the most satisfying movies I've seen in some time.
I suspect that when the Oscar nominations are made this film will feature widely.