'Argo' finds hope in a hopeless age
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Enter Tony Mendez, the Central Intelligence Agency officer tapped to ferry the Americans from the Canadian ambassador’s residence through Tehran’s international airport and onto a flight home to the U.S. Mendez devised a seemingly preposterous plot to slip into Iran posing as a Canadian filmmaker who was producing a B-grade sci-fi flick called “Argo.” Mendez would masquerade the six Americans as fellow Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a movie so fraught with cultural clichés that it was insane to believe that the Iranians would entertain the thought of its being filmed in their capital. After a day of scouting, the seven would then board a Swissair flight to freedom.
“Argo” is so implausible that it becomes a theater of the absurd. You wouldn’t believe it, except that it’s true –– or at least mostly true. The film has all the trappings of the perfect against-all-odds Hollywood thriller, including a happy ending. But “Argo” does more than offer a tense plot whose climax is a high-speed chase. It places the 1979 Iranian revolution in its historical context.
“Argo” opens with a short primer on Iran’s 2,500-year history, which has set off a spate of Internet debate. The film notes that Iran, formerly Persia, was ruled for centuries by kings, called shahs. In 1950, Iran, emerging from decades of British colonialism, held democratic elections, and in 1951, its oil fields were nationalized. In 1953, Great Britain and the U.S. helped to engineer a coup d’etat that overthrew the Iranian government. After living in exile, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi returned to the country and employed a secret goon squad to suppress dissent, while living in incomprehensible opulence. He remained in power through January 1979, when the revolution toppled his regime. Fearing for his life and suffering from cancer, he fled to the U.S.
There are those who say that “Argo’s” opening scenes make the U.S. look bad. Yes, they do. But Affleck is careful to balance America’s less-than-righteous involvement in Iran with the brutality of the Iranian revolution, when summary executions were the norm, and a generally pro-American vibe (opening scenes excepted).