Let’s Talk About ‘Argo’

On Saturday, Jay and I saw the movie Argo at our local movie theater.  Argo was directed by Ben Affleck, who also stars in the movie as real life C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez.  It also stars Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Alan Arkin, and a gazillion other people whose faces you’ll recognize if you don’t already know their names.  No, I’m serious.  It seems like everyone is in Argo: Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Chris Messina, etc.

Let me get the non-spoilery stuff out of the way before the page break for anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie yet.  As explained on screen within the first minute of the movie, Argo is based on the real life rescue mission to free six Americans who escaped the Iranian embassy as it was being taken over in November 1979.  Their names are Robert Anders, Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz.  They’re hiding out at Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor’s home and it’s up to the C.I.A. to figure out a way to get them safely out of Iran before it is discovered that they were even there in the first place.  Affleck plays the agent who comes up with a plan so crazy, it just may work.  Cranston plays his boss at the C.I.A. while Goodman plays real-life Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers and Arkin plays producer Lester Siegel, who is a composite of real life producers (but largely based on Warner Brothers founder Jack Warner).  I really think that the fact that this movie is based on a true story makes it all the more incredible because the plot of this movie is straight out of a plot of a movie, only it’s true.  Yeah, bro.  Re-read that sentence again, shake your head and let’s move on.

Argo is a fantastic movie.  It moves along quickly, it’s filled with suspense, the performances are marvelous, the writing is wonderfully tight, and the directing is great.  It never feels like it’s 2 hours long.  In fact, the only times I looked at my watch were because I couldn’t take the suspense anymore and needed to know how long it would be until I saw the payoff.  Me looking at my watch was my own way of substituting not being able to look up the ending on the Internet or turning to the last chapter to see how the story ends.  Argo is one of those movies where so much and so little happen all at once, yet you come away from it wanting to talk about it and telling everyone else to go see it.  I love when filmmakers realize that less is more and actually stick to it.  There are so many characters in the movie, yet because many of them are recognizable actors, it was easy for me to keep them all straight.

Okay, spoilers start below the break.  Jump if you want.  You’ve been warned!

Calling the fake movie “Argo” is actually a nod to the Greek story “Jason and the Argonauts,” in which the hero Jason sails on a ship called the Argo in a quest to obtain the Golden Fleece against impossible odds.  It also provides some much needed humor with a particularly hilarious recurring joke (actually, if the joke hadn’t been recurring, then it may not have been as laugh out loud funny as it was).  I love when people tie literary references into things.  I also love when people put shameless Star Wars references everywhere.  Such fun for my geek self to watch.

I think what I enjoyed the most about Argo is that although filmmakers took take some normal Hollywood liberties in the adaptation (more on that later), it’s still very much real.  From what I’ve read about the actual event, dubbed in real life the “Canadian Caper,” it doesn’t seem like many of the facts were changed.  I love that Affleck stays true to the actual Tony Mendez’s capabilities and isn’t some James Bond-type character, but rather a very smart man who is very good at disguises.  Mendez has a very particular set of skills, but killing kidnappers isn’t one of them.  It also added to the suspense; if the group were caught, no one was going to suddenly know kung-fu and get them out of what would be certain death.  It added a nice layer of realism that we don’t see very option in big Hollywood movies, a layer that replaces that suspension of disbelief.

The real life account is much less dramatic, but just as interesting.  The idea for rescue is pretty close to what’s actually shown on screen.  Mendez did work with Chambers and Hollywood execs to set up a fake movie studio and produce a fake movie based on a real script.  The studio was called Studio Six after the six Americans they were trying to rescue, just like in the film, and the “real” fake movie they were going to make was called Argo.  It was based off of Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel “Lord of Light.”  The cover stories were the same – a Canadian film crew looking to scout locations for their upcoming movie, which had been featured in Variety and everything!

Differences:  Mendez actually had a partner who was not featured in the actual film, though in my research, I couldn’t find a reason why his character was omitted.  The film production roles were also altered; rather than having glamorous jobs such as director, the hidden Americans were given less exciting titles such as art director, cinematographer, and transportation coordinator.  In the film, Mendez is late to pick up the American Six because he had debated whether or not to disobey C.I.A. orders to call off the mission, but in real life, Mendez was late because he overslept.  His alarm was set for 2:15am, but he was awoken at 3am by a phone call.  The movie has also met some criticism because in real life the British and New Zealand diplomats also played a part in helping the six who were in hiding.  In fact, some of them actually stayed with the British for a short period of time before they moved in to the Canadian ambassador’s home.  Finally, the only hold-up that the group encountered at the airport was a mechanical delay that held up their AirSwiss flight.  Unlike in the film, they had no problems getting through airport security and past any subsequent Iranian officials.  Oh!  And because I know that everyone’s dying to know – the team allegedly drank Bloody Marys upon being free of Iranian airspace, not champagne!  I’m sure that there are plenty more discrepancies, but these were the ones that stuck out the most to me when I was reading about the actual event.

All things said, Argo is a spectacular movie and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re into historical political thrillers and/or really good movies.  I’d love to see it again when I have the time one day.  I also may pick up Mendez’s book about his experience.  I think it would be a fascinating read.  And to end on a really fun note – the Studio Six cover was actually so believable that according to a C.I.A. account: “By the time Studio Six folded several weeks after the rescue, we had received 26 scripts.… One was from Steven Spielberg.”

Now, THAT’S pretty awesome.

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