When History Meets Fiction

History starts as farce,ends as tragedy,” says director Lester Siegel (Arkin) in the film Argo

Written by Shalini Langer | Published: October 20, 2012 3:31:01 am


DIRECTOR: Ben Affleck

CAST: Ben Affleck,Alan Arkin,Bryan Cranston,John Goodman,ssssScoot McNairy


History starts as farce,ends as tragedy,” says director Lester Siegel (Arkin) in the film Argo. Only to be immediately corrected by prosthetics expert John Chambers (Goodman): “It’s actually the other way around.” Who said that,Siegel asks. “Marx,” replies Chambers. “Really,Groucho said that?” Siegel quips. The two,of course,are fooling around. Argo certainly isn’t.

For,this Ben Affleck-directed film sees both the tragedy and the farce of the 444-day-long Iranian hijack crisis,in which every side claimed the moral high ground when neither could claim it,in which a cynical director and prosthetics expert ended up playing heroic roles,and in which the only successful rescue operation rested eventually on the flimsy,derided,ridiculed back of Hollywood.

The film is based on a little-known chapter of one of the worst diplomatic crises of all time,which would determine the course Middle East politics would take. On November 4,1979,a group of students angry at the American support for the Shah of Iran ran over the US Embassy in Tehran and took it over,holding the 50-plus staff inside hostage. The US earlier hoped for a quick resolution but that quickly evaporated as Ayatollah Khomeini extended his support to the students.

Six of the staff escaped that day and took shelter at the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran,Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Argo is the story of their escape,which remained untold till,in 1997,President Clinton declassified the file. The film is inspired by an article on it that appeared in Wired.

As stories go,it was a tale waiting to be told. Called upon to help “exfiltrate” the six,who are at the risk of being discovered and executed by the Iranian revolutionary guards,CIA agent Tony Lopez (Affleck) rejects the idea of them posing as teachers or farming experts — implausible,given the volatile situation in the country.

But Hollywood,who or what can stop Hollywood? So,watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes,Lopez hits upon the idea of him going to Tehran as production manager of a sci-fi film,“Argo”,being planned in the Middle East,and extricating the six as Canadian film crew. For that,he needs to first mount a fake film with real experts,create fake publicity and enough fake buzz to make an impression half way around the world.

Which is where Siegel and Chambers come in. Affleck impresses in how he juxtaposes the absurdity of what they are mounting in Los Angeles,down to the costumes of the sci-fi venture,and what’s happening in the capitals of Iran and America. Each side is caught in its own set of lies,subterfuge and spectacle.

When Lopez eventually arrives in Tehran and meets the six scared Americans in the brave Canadian ambassador’s home,the film nicely builds the claustrophobic fear that surrounds them. The scene at Tehran’s famed bazaar where they are ostensibly scouting for a location and where they get surrounded by angry locals is a case in point.

Affleck has drawn criticism for playing the central role of a Latino himself and for not giving the Canadians enough credit. That seems churlish because the director-actor,with three successful directorial ventures behind him,seems sincere in his belief that history fashions heroes. It’s another matter that Hollywood loves them.



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