Friday, March 29, 2013

And the Oscar goes to Argo

I have not seen all of the 2012 nominees for the Academy Award in the Best Picture category.  Eventually I would like to see all of the rest, except Amour.  As the caregiver for an elderly parent that film isn't something I can deal with at the moment.

Be that as it may, I wanted to post a review of the Oscar-winning Argo.  A lot of people in the industry expressed their surprise when this film won many major awards during this past award season.  Let's face it, Argo was up against some excellent films, directed and produced by Hollywood's elite.  I don't remember another recent year with such a number of superb films, each so worthy of recognition.

Argo is a story based on actual events.  Militant students in Iran stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage.  They wanted their ousted former ruler, the Shah, returned for trial and summary execution from his safe haven in New York.  In actuality, he was dying of cancer.  Our government would not return our former ally on humanitarian grounds, given his condition.  Also, we have never negotiated with terrorists.  Thus, the embassy staff were hostages for 444 days.

As a sapient life form in those times, I remember them well.  Nightly we were treated to screaming demonstrations on the evening news with American flags burned by the militant students in Tehran.  Once or twice a week, they would parade blindfolded hostages before the camera and state they would be tried for espionage and executed.  It was a horrific time, we felt so helpless.  They had our people and we could do nothing except pray and adorn every home and streetlight with yellow ribbons after a popular song of the day.

When we sent in special forces to rescue them, the mission was an embarrassing failure, resulting in the death of some of the rescuers.  The whole affair made Jimmy Carter a one term president.  The Iranians did not release the hostages until Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.

Enough with the history lesson - unknown to the general public, some six employees of the US Embassy managed to escape before the entire compound was overrun.  After going to the British and New Zealand representatives where they were rejected, they found sanctuary at the Canadian Embassy.  And there they stayed hidden, never venturing outside.

Our government knew where the fugitives were hidden.  The CIA worked on possible means to help them escape.  Had they been caught, they would have been executed on the spot by the hotheaded gangs of roaming students.

Argo is the story of the plan chosen to get the six to safety out of Iran.  There were some ridiculous plans discussed - have the six pretend to be teachers for Iranian kids, or crop inspectors - though it was the middle of winter and the snow-covered ground was bereft of vegetation.  All foreign teachers had already left the country.  Then there was my favorite - have the six bicycle the 500 miles through mountainous terrain to escape the country.  Who did the CIA think these people were?  International professional cyclists?  And didn't the agency realize six foreigners with North American accents would not be able to blend in with the populace?  And what about trying to escape a modern country on bicycles anyway?  They couldn't peddle fast enough.  Not even Lance Armstrong in his heyday could outrun motorized vehicles, well not for long, anyway.

In the end, the Argo scenario was chosen.  With the assistance of a CIA operative (Ben Affleck) the six would pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film to be called Argo.  With the help of an Oscar winning make-up artist, played by John Goodman, and a famous producer, played by Alan Arkin, the CIA created Hollywood buzz about the upcoming film.

There were articles in the trade papers about the film.  A reading of the script was held for reporters using costumed professional actors to generate interest in the film.  It was the era of the original Star Wars movie.  Every studio wanted a sci-fi hit.  My favorite things they did to further the illusion were to create posters for the film and story boards illustrating the action scenes.  That was a touch of genius that helped them in the end.

Argo has many tense moments and a few genuinely funny ones.  The humor is mostly provided by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, both excellent in their roles.  The makeup artist and the producer knew from the beginning that the picture would never be made.  But they also knew what elements needed to be there to make the film seem real.  As Arkin's character said, some of the Iranians had relatives in the US who would know if the film seemed like a real project.  He also had a great line to the effect that if his name was going to be on a fake picture, it was going to be a fake hit!

SPOILER ALERT! - In the end, the mission was successful, but they barely got out in time.  The revolutionary guard was literally driving on the runway trying to stop the departing plane.

When they were safely home, the Canadian ambassador and his government were given the credit for the operation.  After all, it was imperative for the health and safety of the remaining hostages that the US have no apparent involvement.  Otherwise the hostages still in custody would be in danger of retaliation.

The Argo operation as a CIA led mission was only revealed years later when President Clinton finally released the information.  The operative that Affleck played was awarded the highest medal that the American intelligence agencies can bestow.  However, it was done in secret and he could not keep it.  When the information was released finally to the public, he got his medal back for good.  He has been named one of the top 50 most important covert operatives in the history of our nation.

I've read other reviews of Argo that state the reason this picture took the Best Picture Oscar is that it represents Hollywood doing an exceptional deed.  I can understand that point of view.  But I also know Argo is an entertaining picture about a heretofore unknown incident in a painful time for the United States.

The cast and script are excellent.  The film truly captures the tense fear of that time.  For someone who lived through that time, some of the scenes are hard to take.

I recommend Argo as a great movie that depicts a positive incident during a dark time. 

Check it out!


  1. Thanks for the excellent review, Sharon. I haven't gotten to the theater in quite awhile, but this looks like it would be worth the effort.

  2. I love the way you so thoughtfully point out things that lie beneath the surface. I confess to an abnormal lack of interest in movies, but you've made me want to really see this one. I also confess to an admiration for John Goodman, and it tickles me to death that you thought he did so well in this film.