Let’s start with a bit of history via Wikipedia:
On the day the hostages were seized, six American diplomats evaded capture and remained in hiding at the Swedish and Canadian embassies. In 1979, the Canadian Parliament held a secret session for the first time since World War II in order to pass special legislation allowing Canadian passports to be issued to some American citizens so that they could escape. In cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency who used the cover story of a film project, the six American diplomats boarded a flight to Zürich, Switzerland, on January 28, 1980. Their escape and rescue from Iran by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor has come to be known as the “Canadian Caper“.The subject of the six escapees and what went into the planning and execution was also covered in the 2012 film Argo, directed by Ben Affleck.
I liked two aspects of this movie—a lot!
First, I appreciated the pacing. The movie begins with a down-‘n-dirty catch-you-up-to-speed history of why the Iranians took the hostages in the first place. Frankly, for a good reason. The US harbored an overthrown dictator who brutally murdered many innocent Iranians over the course of his rule. The US put him in power and protected him after he was deposed. We hear about all of this while we’re watching what look like comic book illustrations. I was puzzled. But later in the movie I’m watching, the ARGO “movie” fake story boards were produced; and I realized that Argo is portraying history as a manufactured, staged event. I confess that there’s a scene in Argo that wonders if the riots are media-staged events. OK back to my pacing tribute. Argo alternates between tension and whimsy, between the reality of the hostages /US government/Iranian situations and the farce of Hollywood movie making and makers. “Argo fuck yourself” is repeated several times and directed not just at the Iranians but at bureaucrats and other annoying folks. So easily, this movie could have propagandized the Iran hostage situation. Instead, it suggests that while terrorism appalls, it also confuses and entertains us. How many times can we watch on our flat-screen LCDs thousands of people chanting in a foreign language we don’t understand, in an animated fashion similar to Olympic opening ceremonies? How many times can we rally around leaders who promise not to “impose additional sanctions” and refrain from making “hostile statements” while applauding an insurgence of American patriotism as a result of terrorism? Argo reminds us that while real people endure real torture, others are manipulating the atrocity for political and personal gain.
Second, I am attracted to Tony Mendez’s code. When the US government decides to abort the mission, Mendez is supposed to abandon the 6 hostages, regardless of the promises he’s made to them and the work he’s done with them. After a night of serious alcohol consumption, Mendez decides to call the US and alert them that he’s responsible for the hostages and going to try to get them out. “Responsible” is a word he uses more than once and it stands out beyond a sense of duty, which I associate with my “should” list. For Mendez, it’s neither what he should do or wants to do. It’s what he must do. It’s clear to him why he is responsible. (Of course, there’s also a bit of “Argo fuck yourself” to his CIA superiors.) It is Mendez’s sense of responsibility that saves his hostages and returns him to his estranged family. The mission details stay classified until he is old, and Canada enjoys the credit. So no glory or reward for Mendez. In fact, he sits alone on the airplane flying to Zurich while the hostages swill champagne and high-five each other. Only one has the decency to thank him. Thereafter, they enjoy media acclaim while Mendez is awarded a medal that is immediately revoked.
Responsibility without fame or payoff. When was the last Hollywood movie that featured that code? Kudos to Affleck as Argo’s director.