Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Chris Terrio
Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman
A dramatization of the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez’s miraculous rescue of six American diplomats during the famous 1979 Iranian hostage crisis — a feat made possible by disguising them as Canadian filmmakers.
What was I thinking? Three action thriller films in one week? Not my usual style as a seeker of mythic themes in film with cultural relevance. Being blown, thrown and ripped from my wits on a virtual roller coaster of near death encounters might be an occasional choice but not a ride I’d take over and over in one week. That said, there was a discovery to be made.
Watching The Matrix and The Hunt for Red October just days before I saw Argo gave the film a mythic framework. To recap a bit, The Matrix conjures up a computer-enhanced hero who plugs in and out of virtual realities with the ease of a Zen Master. The Hunt for Red October is about two heroes; a rescuing CIA operative and a defecting Russian navy captain who confront one another under the ocean as a nuclear-armed submarine heads toward the U.S.
By contrast, Argo is a real life story in which the hero is a real life man, Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) who rises to mythic stature by making illusion truth at just the right moment. Mendez successfully crosses the Iranian airport in full view of armed guards with six fugitive American diplomats disguised as a Canadian film crew on location in Tehran scouting a science fiction film.
The chutzpah of the Argo play on words, “Ahrwgofugyrself” (exquisitely delivered by Alan Arkin) reflects an inspiring triumph of mind over matter. The audience laughed every time the slogan was uttered, and its sentiment easily expresses the pleasure taken when courage and integrity visualized in film are mirrored in life. Tony Mendez (and, for that matter, Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Jack Ryan and Captain Ramius) refused orders to follow his conscience when the CIA wanted to pull the plug on the rescue mission mid-stride. Independent action, taking responsibility into one’s own hands – or by the balls (these are very male films) – is never a sure thing but when the other way, the sure way, is for sure a dead end, it’s is worth a shot.
In Argo, Mendez’ efforts are infused with a mythos of heroism as might’ve happened in the ancient days of Greek when Odysseus called upon the gods to give him safe passage. The six American diplomats who ran from the back door of the besieged American embassy found temporary refuge in the Canadian Embassy. They hid there until Tony Mendez arrived with a plan more likely to succeed in a fairy tale than a war zone. The real life rescue mission drew cover from a different sort of mythic raiment than the Greek skies — Hollywood moviemaking. Mendez, with critical but not guaranteed help from his agency, transforms the six fugitive American diplomats stranded in Tehran into a Canadian production crew of a faux movie – an epic scale sci-fi film, funded, storyboarded and publicized with movie posters in the trades with a direct phone line to a Hollywood production studio.
While Argo is a story with an awfully good ending, there’s no spoiler in knowing the hostages escaped. In the film, anxious, dispirited American captives walk within an arm’s length of soldiers whose shackles promise torture. Fifty-two other hostages were detained 444 days in Iran. And terrorism ended the lives of four Americans, including an ambassador, in Libya a bare month ago. The danger is actual, not virtual. Argo is the dramatization of a true life C.I.A. caper dreamed up and carried out by one of the bravest men on the planet, yet it’s supported by a tradition of science-fictionalized heroism that everyone in the world believes even though it’s clearly make-believe. Only Orson Welles could’ve done it better.
The thread of mythic storytelling runs through all three films. In The Hunt for Red October, King Neptune himself commands the action, allowing state-of-the-art Cold War nuclear submarines to navigate murky waters while we hold our breath not wanting to utter a disturbing sound. It’s like being submerged in the psychic depths of a dream where unconscious encounters between behemoth monsters occur in slow motion. The Matrix engages our imagination for other worldly experience just as conclusively. We’re effectively dropped into an inner core of subsistence survival, a womblike murky fluid with bacterial attackers into which a few human survivors plug in through a cybersocket splice in time and space from one world to another. With the magnetic pull of possibility heightened by computer animation, The Matrix engages viewers in an exhilarating, albeit sobering mythic in-between world where dodging bullets is key to peace and well-being.
Like Ginger Rogers who did everything that Fred Astaire did — only backward and in high heels, Argo plays out as an action thriller through the lens of a fake movie. As the faux Canadian film crew, conspicuously white and swarmed by Iranian pedestrians, carries out a faux location scout on Tehran’s humming streets in a crowded outdoor market, we’re as alert as if we were 20,000 leagues under the sea anticipating a collision of humongous submarines. I physically flinched when an Iranian storekeeper leapt angrily to his feet objecting to a photo taken by a young woman in the role of the movie’s location scout. She quickly offers him the polaroid photo but he’s not interested. She profusely apologizes but he’s not interested. When I visited souks in Marrakech, I experienced a similar angry tirade from a shop owner to a photo I’d taken of his booth. He didn’t care about the photo. He cared about an insult vibrant in his own mind. Physical assault was avoided but like Trinity disappearing into a telephone as she’s about to be crushed by huge truck, escape felt close. Imagine then, the odds of extricating six Americans from a revolution – an impossibility without the magic of a Hollywood script.
As a true story with a little fast fingered editing of events for box office leverage, Argo walks the same fine line between fantasy and reality as The Matrix or The Hunt for Red October. We imbue Tony Mendez with special powers as he traverses the Iranian airport with six fugitive Americans in full view of armed guards just as we do when Jack Ryan shimmies down a wire from a helicopter into the freezing cold ocean to a waiting submarine or when Neo bodily invades a digitalized agent and, like so much silly putty, turns himself inside out! But more importantly, the armed guards suspended disbelief just like we do while watching movies and let Mendez through.
One of the funniest, barely plausible scenes in Argo is when one of the faux Canadian filmmakers explains – in Farsi – the faux film’s faux storyboards to a very real life Iranian Guard. He translates – fabricating on the spot – wild planetary invasion drawings of storyboarded scenes with metallic men and latex women into a convincing saga of acceptable Iranian family values – and gets his group past a key checkpoint. Maybe outrageous schemes are the only ones to fly in the face of an enemy as invisible as fear.
For me, three action thrillers in a row turned up a truth that breaks through facts. We walk a fine line between fantasy and reality every day. Some days, it’s more obvious than others; The Matrix, a widely popular film based firmly in myth offers a choice to live a fictionalized version of the ordinary or realized version of the extraordinary. The Hunt For Red October fictionalizes an enlightened vision of men from nations at war who relinquish the power to wipe humankind off the face of the earth. Argo, an arguably lesser film packs a larger truth because we live so close to facts of terrorism – wherever in the world they occur – thanks to an invisible world wide web of eyes that doesn’t wait for a movie theater to reveal what it’s seeing. And, yes, it’s funny. There’s nothing duller than truth without humor.
And Argo has the last laugh. What if anything has meaning when fiction works better in reality than reality itself?