Alan Arkin plays a producer, Lester Siegel, who is on his way to pick up some lifetime achievement award, and is being asked to help with the cover by Chambers and Mendez, and is stirred to action by seeing a blindfolded hostage on the TV. “If I’m doing a fake movie it’s gonna be a fake hit,” he declares in one of his many pitch-perfect lines.
When Mendez questions why they need to option the script for the fake movie, Siegel replies, “You’re worried about the ayatollah? Try the WGA.”
And when they need that extra lift — aka a nice story in Variety to shove in suspicious Iranian guards’ faces — Arkin’s character notes, “If you want to sell a lie, get the press to sell it for you.”
For the films’ shared ’70s vibe, wide lapels, and polyester ties, Argo doesn’t attempt to get as political as Munich, save for the shah-blaming.
Save for when an Iranian consulate official in Turkey crosses out “kingdom” on a now-defunct stamp and writes in “Islamic Republic,” the Islamic tie isn’t all that prevalent in the film. A clip of the ayatollah notes that “people are looking forward to martyrdom,” and the unforgiving, piercing eyes of Ruhollah Khomeini peer out from various corners of the movie.
The streets of Tehran are choked with fear and tension instead of joyful rebellion: a man’s body hanging by the neck from a crane along a busy street, cars burning in the streets, young Islamist gunmen staking out street corners and eyeing passers-by. When Mendez’s “film crew” is invited out by Iran’s filming liaison, they are surrounded by the eyes of spies, angry mobs, and an era of fear and torture no better than the one earlier described.
Argo is a taut thriller and I was hooked every minute. But it would have been helpful to note that these angry guys staging mock executions on American hostages — and real executions of anyone thought to be a sympathizer of the Great Satan — had a deeper underlying motivation than anger over the shah’s exile.
Homeland, despite its detractors, clearly makes the link between Islam and terrorism. Sgt. Brody, as an American captive, sees prayers one day and is lured toward the religion. We see this as his binding link to terrorist (bin Laden stand-in) Abu Nazir, and their bond was forged further by the death of Nazir’s son Isa in a U.S. airstrike. Brody is enraged when his wife, equally enraged to find out that he became a secret Muslim, throws his Koran on the floor. Brody paints his conversion to Islam to CIA agent Carrie Mathison as a comforting crutch in a time of crisis when there weren’t exactly Bibles around, but viewers also see that it’s the tie that binds him to terrorism.
Argo not only resurrects the Iran hostage crisis, but old news clips that highlighted the public anger that helped make Jimmy Carter’s first term his last.
“John Wayne’s in the ground six months and this is what’s left of America,” Arkin as producer notes.
There is no footnote to say that Iran has returned to peace and prosperity. It seems as if the filmmakers are content to let the headlines speak for themselves; the greater real-life controversy was whether Canada got enough onscreen credit for its role in the rescue.
“If I look at the archival footage that I used for research, from 30 or whatever years ago, it looks just like some of the stuff we’re seeing on television now,” Affleck told The Hollywood Reporter. “…And it’s the same regime, it was Khomeni, now it’s Khamenei — there’s still this Islamist, this Stalinist regime, and that makes me sad.”
In fact, one of Mendez’s lines in justifying the risky operation could speak to the running clock on Iran’s nuclear development today: “There are only bad options; it’s about finding the best one.”
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