Based on true events, the latest film from actor-director Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting) tells the story of how six American fugitives evade capture in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis. Seasoned CIA operator Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), inspired by a cheap Hollywood B-movie, attempts to bring the six Americans out of Iran disguised as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a science fiction film. Calling in a favour from Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) the pair enlists the help of retired movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) who insists that if they’re going to make a fake movie “it’s going to be a fake hit!”
In 1979 the Iranian revolution was just coming to the boil when Islamist students and militants ignored a time-honoured international law granting foreign diplomats immunity abroad. They stormed the US embassy and held 52 of its personnel hostage for 444 days, until the US government could broker a deal for their release. The film makes it clear from the outset that if the six fugitives are caught by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards they will likely die and die badly.
In 1952 Shah Mohammed Mosaddegh was deposed in a coup organised by the CIA, which then installed Western sympathiser Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The film portrays the United States as having effectively rendered Iran’s hitherto nationally controlled oil fields open for business and the country’s Islamic way of life null and void. With shouts of “Death to America” resounding in the streets of Tehran, the people of Iran (most prominent among them supporters of the revolution’s poster boy Ayatollah Khomeini) publicly chastise the West and in particular anyone with ties to America.
Politics aside, Argo is a compelling thriller though at times a tad melodramatic. Its politics are as accessible as its plot is charming, as captivating as it is nerve-wracking. Issue-laden as his material is, Affleck offsets the required political history (briefly summarised by a voice-over at the beginning) with some genuinely moving scenes of fear and confusion among the fugitives and those helping them to escape. The scenes of unrest in the streets of Tehran are reminiscent of news coverage at the time, and the tension within Iran and for those watching the crisis unfold is palpable throughout.
One scene sees the fugitives drive slowly through the streets of Tehran, barely escaping a mob of outraged protesters screaming for American blood, moving slowly past burnt-out cars and the dead bodies of traitors hung from cranes for the world to see. Although set in Iran towards the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, footage of chanting crowds and angry civilians brandishing placards along with hooded militia armed with AK-47s is all too familiar for anyone with an eye on current affairs.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for crisis within and between nations. Argo wisely avoids trying to make sense of the politics of either side, showing instead that human behaviour is often unreasonable that sometimes the most unlikely solution is the one you run with. You go with “the best bad idea” you’ve got.
This is Affleck’s most mature directorial outing yet, in spite of its consistently colourful language throughout. He takes full advantage of artistic licence in emphasising the more apolitical aspects of the film’s Hollywood connection. In its best moments Argo celebrates a rare victory for reason over rhetoric in a world seemingly gone mad. The film re-sensitizes the viewer to stock newsreel footage of angry mobs and frightened faces by focusing on the people beyond the politics and the heartache between the headlines.
The Arab Spring now irrevocably sprung, the West and its allies are feeling the force of a crisis in the Middle-East which seems to be getting worse by the day and with no end in sight. The hostage crisis between the US and Iran recreated so vividly in Argo is as poignant as it is powerful, not least because its politics have a contemporary relevance which is hard to ignore. Crucially though, Argo displays a sensitivity to the personal cost of conflict, felt first and most acutely by the ordinary people caught up in it.
Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.