Much though I have fondly watched Ben Affleck’s progress with affectionate attention since the entirely charming Good Will Hunting, Argo is not yet a definitive post-graduate work for the admittedly versatile Affleck.
Who can forget his other great collaboration with his distant relative, friend, and sometime collaborator Matt Damon, Dogma, or even the oddly stylish stinkers Armageddon and Reindeer Games?
There is courage in his decision to acknowledge direct American complicity in creating a murderously brutal regime in Iran that created the very circumstances leading to the heroic exploits of an admitted patriot and hero, Tony Mendez. The remainder of the film, however, is sustained as an Oscar winner only by a recalcitrant kind of American hubris about locating anything at all noble in the wreckage of US Middle East foreign policy since the 1950s. Dare one say the entire post-war American Third World foreign policy?
To really understand the worthiness of Mendez’s madcap plot to rescue six Americans from the terror of the Iranian revolution in 1980, it is rewarding to pay much closer attention to the events that led to the revolution and the perilous positions Americans found themselves in during those now distant days in 1979 and 1980.
That takes us back to a different world, when the British Empire controlled a Persian oil franchise which came under threat from an emergently nationalist Iranian government, nationalising the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and proving quite resistant to British diplomacy on returning profits to the City of London.
Depending on which sources are consulted, in 1952 or ’53 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service or Military Intelligence, Section 6) confabulated a need to overthrow the elected Iranian government, and convinced the CIA, under director Allen Dulles, that this was a necessity to stem the tide of communist influence in that part of the world. It might be of interest to note that Dulles was one of a composite of characters portrayed marvellously well by Matt Damon as Edward Wilson in Robert De Niro’s magnificent contemporary re-make of Citizen Kane, The Good Shepherd, dramatizing the origins of the CIA.
Dulles then commended the plan to his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (a name oddly reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane), who ordered the go-ahead for what came to be known as Operation Boot by MI6, and Operation Ajax by the CIA.
This operation involved a CIA operative with the unlikely name Kermit Roosevelt Jr (grandson of Theodore, distant relative to FDR) bribing the young figurehead king, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, with $1 million to respond to contrived riots, and with military backing, to depose the sitting Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, thus effectively becoming a dictator with military backing.
The coup took place in 1953, and despite the overtones of a Boy’s Own adventure yarn, many elected Iranian representatives and their supporters were summarily executed or gaoled, including Mosaddeq, whose death sentence was commuted to a three-year gaol sentence followed by house arrest for the remainder of his life.
In 1954, the Anglo-Iranian Petroleum Company was re-named British Petroleum, which became a partner in a consortium with Dutch, French and American partners to take over the former British oil interests in Iran. The consortium partners became known, after some mergers between them, as the oil ‘supermajors’.
Given the paramount importance of oil to profits necessary for British repayment of American war loans, as well as to force projection and the conduct of warfare, it is inconceivable that the Iranian oil interests were not discussed between the British and Americans prior to the coup, but evidence of such discussions is entirely unavailable.
Allen Dulles went on to engineer the Guatemalan coup of 1954, as well as Operation 40 in 1960, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 against Castro’s communist Cuba, before being forced out of the CIA directorship.
Pahlavi crowned himself Shahanshah (king of kings) of Persia and remained a loyal puppet to American interests in the region, until his exile and deposition in 1979. He is sometimes credited with efforts to modernise Persia (Iran), but also with employing a fearsome secret police, the SAVAK (Organisation of Intelligence and National Security) which brutally tortured and murdered dissidents, and with undoubted displays of obscene opulence while most of his people continued to live in almost Feudal poverty.
Among many other less influential groups, Pahlavi made the mistake of gradually falling out with the Shi’ite Muslim clergy over modernisation and recognition of Israel, but without neutralising their power and influence. In 1963 and 1964 this divergence led to harsh criticism from the clergy, with Sayyid Ruhollah Mostafavi Musavi Khomeini as their figurehead. In 1964 Khomeini was forced into exile, mostly in Iraq, until 1978, and then to Paris, until his return to Iran in 1979, where, after two years of demonstrations and unrest, he was greeted as Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and created Supreme Leader of Iran by the revolutionary movement.
This is the background to the events of 1979 and 1980 shown in Affleck’s film, and to the intense anti-Americanism that only Americans found so inexplicably confounding. In the rest of the world there was shoulder-shrugging about the inevitability of Iranian anti-American sentiment, and speculation that for the CIA not to have monitored its puppet, and opposition to him, more closely smacked of being asleep at the wheel. It could be argued that this failure cost Jimmy Carter a re-election, and guaranteed the hawkish Ronald Reagan centre-stage in the American elections of 1980.
But back to 1979. As shown in Argo, the US embassy in Tehran was stormed by rioting Iranian crowds, led by student radicals formed into militias who took the embassy staff hostage on 4 November.
Unbeknownst to the Iranians, six of the staff had managed to escape and go into hiding in a hostile city, including eventually at the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor. Enter Tony Mendez, the character portrayed by Affleck himself.
Mendez was an American-born scion of Irish, Italian and Mexican ancestry. Joining the CIA in 1965 as a graphic artist, he served in the agency for 25 years in various theatres, and he personally managed the exfiltration of the American diplomatic personnel from Iran that is the subject of the film Argo.
Affleck as Mendez comes across mostly as wooden and sombre, perhaps deliberately, or maybe because he had no one to direct him. The diplomatic personnel were played by unknowns and made a convincing effort of affecting fear and uncertainty.
Highlights in the film were unquestionably provided by the redoubtable John Goodman as (movie effects man) John Chambers, the irascible Alan Arkin as (film producer) Lester Siegel, and Victor Garber as (Canadian diplomat) Ken Taylor.
Without regurgitating the plot, using a fake science fiction film production company as pretext to provide aliases for fugitive diplomatic staff and to smuggle them out of the country under those aliases might almost sound too absurd to be true, but the real Tony Mendez did it, bringing everyone out on 28 January 1980, and was decorated by President Carter for it.
Affleck used plenty of dramatic license to create an, at times, nail-biting tension that was spoilt only for those who know a bit of history, and therefore the outcome; apparently not a major concern to US audiences.
I got the feeling that the film could have been significantly more atmospheric had there been a greater emphasis on post-production techniques. Perhaps some grainy, black and white shots, some rapid intercutting, some more atmospheric music to heighten the chaos of revolutionary Tehran. Second-guessing the award winning editor seems churlish now, but there was nevertheless a dramatic atmosphere gone begging in many of the very orthodox visualisations.
The production aside, and the story in focus once more, Mendez was undoubtedly a patriot and genuine hero, but his actions were themselves made necessary by the ineptitude of an organisation that had lost sight of its own Frankenstein monsters running loose in the world, one of which was the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose anti-Americanism was almost entirely of America’s making, not least by the remote endorsement of the Shah’s brutality and indifference to his own people.
Mendez has already been decorated, and the film itself is only a reminder of something Mendez already capitalised on in several books, but perhaps the real Academy Awards for this film ought to have gone to the men on whom the Goodman and Arkin characters were based. Real patriots acting to assist their compatriots overseas. Real heroes. And real actors, too, in carrying off the deceit necessary to create the fake film company.
It seems to me the real appeal of Argo is its feel-good aspect that requires very little discernment. It is crystal clear who the good guys are, who to cheer for, and who to hiss at. There is none of the ambiguity of Zero Dark Thirty or Homeland, which present slightly more adult, slightly less self-indulgent, less anti-intellectual perspectives on similar topics.
In some senses Argo is a logical heir and successor to Charlie Wilson’s War, working at the rehabilitation of America’s foreign policy reputation, and that of the CIA, by picking from the ashes of its massive failures a few bright spots. I almost expected some reference to the failed Operation Eagle Claw rescue mission, staged to liberate the other 52 American embassy staff, held hostage for 444 days, in line with the closing quote in Charlie Wilson’s War: ‘These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world … and then we fucked up the end game.’
That said, it is almost certain that we will never really know the CIA’s biggest triumphs, because they must remain secret, possibly forever, but certainly for a lifetime. Nevertheless, the small reasons to be cheerful located in Charlie Wilson’s War and Argo appear quite whimsical, and significant to audiences only in terms of the charm of Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck, or maybe a somewhat dated patriotic jingoism.
Leaving this topic behind one cannot but speculate on what a wonderful, epic film could be made of the entire story about the control of oil in Iran from 1941 until the aftermath of the 1953 coup. It really could outdo the sweep and grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia. Unfortunately such a film is unlikely to attract funding: it would have to present contemporary oil companies as the lawless, buccaneering predators that they are, and as the cause of the entire post-war Middle East crisis, which has never abated for a single day since the end of WWII hostilities, and which includes the extant Afghan and Iraq wars, and the Iranian conflict yet to come.
As was said elsewhere about a different fiction altogether, perhaps the ascendant and self-confident new television landscape offers a better chance to engage in a long-form treatment of a great American story begging to be told in all its intricacy, tragedy, and gravity.
- This Wired article on Mendez details the actual exploit.
- In a surreal tit-for-tat move, Iran plans its own film about the hostage drama.
- Screenrant’s Sandy Schaefer on whether it matters that the Argo departed from facts. A question perhaps of importance only in the US.
- Mark Lijek, one of the real ‘Canadian six’ comments on Argo in Slate.
2012, 120 minutes, colour, GK Films/Smokehouse Pictures/Warner Bros.
Directed by Ben Affleck. Produced by Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney. Written by Chris Terrio, based on The Master of Disguise by Tony Mendez and The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Music by Alexandre Desplat.
With Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, John Goodman as John Chambers, Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, Victor Garber as Ken Taylor, Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, Tate Donovan as Robert Anders, Clea DuVall as Cora Lijek, Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek, Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford, Kerry Bishé as Kathy Stafford, Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz, Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan, Željko Ivanek as Robert Pender, Titus Welliver as Jon Bates.