Friday, 1 March 2013


On Saturday 23rd February after what had been a bight but cold day I made my way to Cineworld Bolden to watch the film widely expected to win the best film award at the Oscars Argo, the best film at the BAFTAS. On arrival I was surprised to note that several cars had heavy snow on their roofs and it was only on reaching Pelaw on my way to Newcastle the following day that I understood there had been a major snowfall covering the area into Newcastle and Northumberland. It was surprisingly quiet at McDonalds of their excellent coffees and joining the large audience waiting for the allocated theatre to be opened. By the time the film commenced the auditorium was almost full but I had no one sitting next to my aisle seat.
In several ways Argo and Zero Dark Thirtyare similar films in that they portray the role of two individualistic, singled minded CIA officers determined to carry out their appointed missions, disregarding potential consequences for their personal safety and domestic lives and families, based on real events where the outcome is known and where the back story was not known outside of CIA insiders, the military and a few politicians. Last Sunday Argo won the best film award and for writing and editing while Zero Dark Thirty gained only the award for sound editing. I have found it difficult to disentangle my judgement from the politics in the film industry where a campaign was launched to try and stop awards to Zero Dark Thirty and the suspicion of military and political intervention appeared well founded when it the wife of the President surrounded by recently decorated men and women in their dress uniforms announced that Argo had won the best film award.
Not that I want to take anything away from Argo as a film where because I did not know the specifics of the story covered by the film it was one of the most suspenseful experienced, more so than the Bigalo film although interestingly I thought the Hurt Locker, Bigalo’s previous film about USA involvement in the War in Iraq the best of the three, including for its suspense.
My main objection to Argo is that it is a dishonest film with much of what makes it a success intentional fiction whereas Zero Dark Thirty came so close to the truth about the CIA and US Government involvement in torturing suspects that the Right in the USA has declared foul and wants to know who has done the leaking.
Argo’s begins with a short history of USA involvement in supporting the corrupt Shah and his entourage and his over throw and the anger that was generated when the USA provided a haven for the man because of severe ill heath. The USA Embassy was seized on November 4th 1979and its staff taken hostage for over 400 days when the USA refused to return the hated man for trial and execution. As with most revolutions the leadership tends to go with the flow even if this means a reign of terror with individuals strung up as warnings or out of simple revenge together with much destruction of the most hated institutions and public buildings.
In this instance six individual members of the Embassy staff were able to escape because they were on duty in the public reception office within the walls of the compound but with direct access for the public into a side street away from the organised mob. Factually several embassies aware that some individuals had escaped sent out vehicles to try and find and take them to safety including the British and New Zealand from where in the film it is alleged the group were turned away finding only refuge at the home of Canadian Ambassador and his wife who had a young Iranian helping out with domestic chores. This lie.
The CIA call in Tony Mendez one of their special agents who has already taken out a number of people from Iran and he advises against the State Department and his own agency suggestions for how to get the six out of the country. He is separated from his wife and son but who he communicates on a daily basis via Skype and on one such call the boy is watching a Planet of the Apes film and this gives Tony the idea of how to do the impossible, to pose as a Canadian film crew wanting to shoot scenes of a sci fi movie in Iran. In order to have any chance of convincing the authorities in Iran they have to go through the motion of creating a real film which first involves him contacting John Goodman as the Hollywood Make Up artist who has helped he CIA with disguises in the past and therefore can be trusted. Goodman in turn brings in Alan Arkin an established film producer to assist and advise and set up a fake production company with an office. They examine scripts and hit on a work of science fiction called ARGO. They buy the film rights, set up an office and hold a read through with established actors in costume at a film launch party for the media which gets great publicity in the trade papers. They then plan roles as part of the crew for the six sheltering in the home of the Ambassador.
The six have become increasingly frustrated and anxious with their captivity and there is concern when the maid begins to ask why the visitors never go out. The tension mounts as we learn that the Iranians having taken all the shredded material from the embassy and are employing people to go through and reconstruct the documents which includes the staff files and which will identify that six escaped and who they are from their photos.
The tension builds as the CIA man played by Ben Affleck (who also Directed the film and was a co producer with George Clooney and Grant Heslov) travels via Turkey to get his visa into the country There are two copies of the visa one is stamped and returned to the traveller on arrival and the other is held at the airport to be checked on departure. The Culture Ministry in Iran requires them to have an on site meeting at the International Street market Bazaar which involves coming across a street demonstration. There is also an incident after one of the staff (as the film photographer, takes a shot of people one of whom resent the photo being taken without personal permission. Iranian agents also take the opportunity to photos the alleged film crew.
At the Canadian Embassy one of the USA refugees has serious reservations about the enterprise and is full of guilt at not leaving earlier when under pressure from his recently married wife, who also worked for the US government and escaped with him. The problem is that the Canadian government decided it could no longer sustain the position and wanted to withdraw its people fearing retaliation. Worse still at the last moment as arrangements had been made for their departure, the US State Department told the CIA to drop the rescue within hours of it taking place because of a new plan by the government to rescue the main hostage group and feared that if those in the Canadian Embassy made it the lives of the others would be put at even greater risk.
Affleck decides that he cannot abandon them and advises that he is going ahead and there are several great tense moments. First the team assembling the photos from the shredded papers complete one of the photos of a staff member and this is the same as one of the photos taken of the film makers at the bazaar and a unit is sent first to the Canadian Embassy and then to the airport. Previously the Iranian authorities had questions the maid who against our expectations stuck with the cover story that the film makers had only arrived a couple of days before.
At the airport the first problem is that the tickets have not been authorised. Learning that the rescue was going ahead despite orders to the contrary, Affleck’s boss had reported upwards and contacted the State Department only to learn that the personal authorization from the White House was required and getting this, involved a complex series of steps as the key person was unavailable,
As expected although the faked passports and visa arrival certificates were in order the problem was that the duplicates were not being held and this issue is referred to the revolutionary agents at the airport. The letters and the film material, including scene boards and press notices do not convince in themselves and a call is made to the film office in Hollywood. Unfortunately the two men setting up the fake film office are held from returning after going for lunch by film work going on, but fortunately they decide to interrupt the shooting and get back to answer the inquiry in the right way. This is the great flaw in the film because the rational would have been not to have contacted Hollywood direct but to have consulted withinIran where the truth had been discovered. There is a then a tense moment as the revolutionary authorities attempt to stop the plane taking off but it does and reaches International airspace.
The rest is happy ending as the refugees are interviewed on arriving in Canada with the Canadian Ambassador and his wife to hade made their way out of the country separately by train while the maid crosses the border into Iraq. Affleck expecting to be sacked for indiscipline is awarded the highest service medal but cannot reveal to his family because the involvement of the CIA is kept secret to protect the other hostages. Affleck is reunited with his family and in the ends credits there a note that he did get to take the medal home after the mission was declassified a quarter of a decade later. The six returned to duties elsewhere. The other hostages were rescued.
It is a very good film but so is Zero Dark Thirty and it is disgraceful that one film has been attacked while the other which also has many fictional aspects is rewarded. The history of Iran was telescoped to provide several minor inaccuracies e.g. the Prime Minister was said to be elected by the people when the election is only by Members of Parliament.
It was the Canadian Ambassador who orchestrated the escape with the CIA man in the country only a day and a half to execute the plan, The Canadians were 90% responsible and the CIA 10% with the film reversing the positions, Having claimed Britain and New Zealand had turned away the Americans a man from the New Zealand Embassy drove the party to the airport and British diplomats also put their lives on the line assisting. Affleck’s argument that he needed to show that the six had no where to go misleads and is probably why he did not get the best director nomination or an award for his acting performance. Alan Arkin was nominated for supporting actor which I thought was odd given that he the actor portraying the husband who did not want to participate was excellent. His role did not exist in reality.
The six never went to the bazaar and were never in imminent danger in way portrayed in the film. The Ambassadors wife had purchased the tickets in pairs from three airlines ahead of time and there was no confrontation with officials or chase at the airport.
The CIA man involved is part Mexican so what was Ben Affleck doing? He was creating a myth of white America CIA and USA looking after their own and painting Iranians as dangerous rather than honest folk who rebelled against a corrupt and ruthless regime supported by previous USA administration. He was whitening the black whereas Bigalo’s film is an honest grey and in a country so divided as the USA with such extremes of position, the simpletons who form the majority need everything to be painted in the strong black and white.

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