Historical epics and “based on a true story” stories can be tricky endeavors.
Inevitably, someone will accuse the filmmaker of historical revisionism or bias. If the movie depicts realistic characters, their actions, emotions and complaints will be seen as indictments on the real people around those characters. And in the worst of all scenarios, sometimes a filmmaker will just find it impossible to keep his or her raging agenda from taking over.
Thankfully, the new film in theaters this weekend called “Argo” – which depicts a real-life heroic mission during the Iran hostage crisis, a mission only declassified in 1997 – may be subject to the first two criticisms, but is not guilty of the last.
Let’s start with the legitimate criticism: “Argo” isn’t friendly to the U.S.
The film opens with a recap of the events leading up to Iran’s 1979 revolution. In real life, the U.S. and U.K. were involved for decades in high-stakes political kingmaking in Iran, which in turn gave rise to a highly unpopular and secular Shah. When Iran erupted in an Islamic revolution against that Shah, the West was not blameless.
“Argo” makes this point clear, but focuses mostly on the West’s oil interests and doesn’t touch the Cold War motivations about countering the Soviet Union, nor does it focus on the Islamic elements that drove the violent 1979 revolution. This isn’t a blatant propaganda piece – it sure doesn’t make Islam look like “a religion of peace” – but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The film could be accused, and I believe found guilty, of anti-American bias, and yet … its main story actually reinforces a patriotic theme. There’s definitely a mixed bag here, so I’ll let history buffs argue the point.
Another legitimate criticism is that the intelligence operatives in the film frequently bicker, disagree and complain about the CIA brass, giving the U.S. intelligence community a black eye.
But these are criticisms of elements within the film, not of the story as a whole. Once the action gets rolling, it’s clear this story isn’t about hating America or its intelligence community, but about the daring, integrity and pressure under fire of one of America’s most highly honored CIA agents, a man whose exploits were hidden from public view until 1997 and largely unheralded … until now.
In the end, this is a story about a real American hero.
When raging Iranian mobs stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, six Americans were able to slip through the chaos and were hidden by the Canadian ambassador in his own home.
“Argo” tells the tale of how the CIA was able to exfiltrate the trapped Americans by cooperating with a Hollywood makeup artist to stage a fake sci-fi film and smuggle the trapped Americans out as an alleged Canadian “film crew.”
Sound like the implausible plot of some misguided Hollywood fantasy? Yet that’s exactly what CIA Agent Tony Mendez did in real life in 1979.
In the 2012 telling of the tale, actor Ben Affleck does a fine job portraying Mendez but does an even finer job directing the movie. From its opening Warner Brothers title screen using the 1979 version of the movie studio logo and early ’80s fonts for the credits, “Argo” feels like it was shot during the same time period it portrays.
And the film is filled with both edge-of-your-seat tension and laugh-out-loud moments lampooning Hollywood, only helped by the casting of John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the Hollywood execs who made “Operation Houseguest” a success. Despite being a political and historical retelling, “Argo” is entertaining, well-acted and fascinating.
Even the message (apart from some anti-American bias) is positive, touting personal responsibility, demonstrating heroism and praising the selflessness of American CIA agents. In reality, news reports at the time gave full credit to the Canadian government for the rescue, the extent of U.S. involvement not revealed until the case was declassified in 1997.
“If we wanted applause,” a CIA chief reminds Mendez at the end of the film, “we would have joined the circus.”
Meanwhile, Mendez is willing to risk it all, his life, others’ lives, even world events, to do the right thing.
“Somebody’s responsible,” Mendez says when others around him would wash their hands of the affair and leave the trapped Americans to die as political pawns. “I’m responsible.”
Left, right, revisionist or realist, we may disagree on how the U.S. is painted in “Argo,” but there’s one thing we ought to be able to agree upon: The portrait “Argo” paints of living heroes in both the U.S. and Canada is an inspiring example we could use more of in the real world today.
- “Argo” is rated R primarily for its excessive amount of obscenity and profanity, totaling more than 40 utterances, many quite strong. Unfortunately, in an otherwise very well made film, “Argo” shoots itself in the foot with foul language.
- The film also has some foolishly gratuitous shots of skin – no outright nudity, but in the effort to sexualize the scenes in Hollywood, several women are dressed in scandalously skimpy outfits. There are also some sexually explicit phrases and a bare-chested man, but no romantic scenes.
- The film depicts some of the violence of the 1979 revolution, including rioting mobs, a hanging, tear gas, vandalism, destruction, flag-burnings and beatings. There is not, however, an emphasis on gore or stylized, “shock-value” violence. One man is seen shot, but there isn’t even any blood shown.
- “Argo” has a significant amount of religious content, but mostly just for atmosphere, including untranslated singing and chanting in foreign languages, some prayer beads, several Christian icons and various Muslim trappings. There is a line about going door to door “like Jehovah’s Witnesses,” another character wishes a friend “mazel tov,” the U.S. is jokingly referred to as the “Great Satan” and a Muslim spokesperson speaks “in the name of [Allah], the beneficent, the merciful.”