Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ben Affleck's "Argo" and the Iranian Hostage Crisis

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” completes the makeover he began when he directed the critically praised “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007.  Finally banishing any lingering memories of “Bennifer” and “Gigli,” Affleck’s third outing as a director is a mature, adult film that will likely draw Oscar attention.  While I enjoyed the movie, it was weakened by the writers’ bizarre need to embellish an already dramatic story to the point it strained credulity.  A rare mix of history and thriller, “Argo” depicts the CIA’s effort to rescue six American diplomats who escaped the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when Iranian demonstrators seized it in November 1979. 

The movie begins with a brief but accurate review of U.S./Iranian relations in the years before the Iranian Revolution.  After reformist president Mohammed Mossadegh was elected in 1951, the United States and Great Britain conspired to engineer a coup to restore the Shah to power in 1953.  Upset that Mossadegh had nationalized Western oil holdings in Iran, the operation marked the beginning of a quarter-century of American backing of the repressive Shah.  U.S. support for the Iranian secret police, which enforced the Shah’s harsh rule, further estranged average Iranians from the American government.  Though the country grew wealthier because of its oil, the government and its corrupt cronies pilfered most of the riches.

This tension culminated with the popular uprising that led to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.  Initially, the new government included a broad-based coalition of Iranian factions, but Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeni eventually gained control of the new regime. 

Angered when the Carter Administration allowed the Shah to come to the U.S. for medical care, Iranian “students” took over the embassy on November 4, 1979.  The seizure played a key role in Khomeni’s consolidation of power and is impressively reenacted by Affleck.  The six diplomats who escaped were given refuge by the Canadian ambassador, and they hid in his residence for the next three months, unable to leave the compound.  Though major news outlets were aware of the situation, they stayed quiet to protect them.

The film shows the anger and frustration of ordinary Americans over the Carter Administration’s inability to retrieve the hostages.  Coming after the twin blows of Vietnam and Watergate, the 444-day ordeal only reinforced the sense of malaise and decline that pervaded the U.S. during the late 1970s.

More subtly, “Argo” captures the overall climate of America in the era.  The hostage crisis is the first major news event I really remember and the film offers the audience a window into the changes in American society over the last three decades.  For instance, the movie depicts almost as much cigarette smoking as in an episode of “Mad Men,” reflecting how the percentage of Americans who smoked hadn’t fallen dramatically since the Surgeon General’s report of 1964.  In an era long before cell phones, every character uses landlines and a rotary phone makes an appearance.

Contemporary news accounts from Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and Ted Koppel appear throughout the film, reminding us of an era before cable and the Internet, when ABC, NBC, and CBS and their evening news programs remained the dominant sources of information for most Americans.  Indeed, Koppel’s nightly special, “America Held Hostage,” contributed to the sense of crisis and eventually became a regular program—“Nightline.”

Of course, ”Argo” is that unique phenomenon—a triumphant tale of the hostage crisis.  While the six diplomats who escaped were rescued, the remaining 52 were held by Iran and by extension, the whole nation was held hostage.  President Carter ordered a rescue mission, known as “Desert One,” which failed disastrously, with eight American soldiers dying after two helicopters collided in the Iranian desert.  Unable to win the hostages’ release, Carter lost badly to Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections.  After negotiating tirelessly during the transition period, Carter finally reached an agreement for the freedom of the hostages.  In a final attempt to humiliate Carter, Khomeni held their plane in Tehran until after Reagan had taken the oath of office.

At the end of the film, Carter’s voice is heard describing why the story had to remain secret, even though revealing it might have helped his chances for reelection in 1980.  Still, the rescue mission may yet have one final legacy—an Oscar nomination for best director for Ben Affleck.

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