Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Let's Win One for the Gipper

For all the fuss over the torture scenes depicted in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, I think more critics would have been concerned with the CIA praise poem Ben Affleck offers in Argo.  Granted, he does give us a cartoon history of Iran in the intro to tell us why the Iranians stormed the US Embassy.   Otherwise, we saw  Tony Mendez become a hero for carrying out a "good bad plan" with a little help from one of the Farsi-speaking US diplomats who managed to ease the suspicious minds of the Revolutionary Guard during an interrogation before boarding their flight out of Tehran.

I think most persons had forgotten (myself included) that six Americans had managed to escape the US Embassy during that fateful day on November 4, 1979, and hid out in the Canadian ambassador's residence for 80+ days before their daring escape.  For 20 years we were told this was the derring-do of the Canadian embassy, thanks largely to ambassador Ken Taylor, Our Man in Tehran.  But, according to Tony Mendez in his 1999 memoirs, The Master of Disguise, this was an elaborate CIA "exfiltration" carried out in concert with the Canadian state department.

The CIA had kept this secret for nearly two decades, but decided to declassify the information in the late 90s, naming Tony Mendez one of its 50 Trailblazers for his masterful works of deceit over the years.  You get the feeling that Mendez studied under Lansdale to hatch a plan like Argo.  But, given the only other viable alternative was to get the six Americans out on bicycle in the middle of winter, I guess a science fiction movie set in ancient Persia was the best of the bad plans.

The film offers a number of amusing scenes thanks to John Goodman and Alan Arkin, but Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez utterly humorlessly.  There were the occasional traces of irony and the ending bordered on farce, but Argo was essentially a homage to Mendez and his valiant effort to carry out his plan after it had been recalled by his chief.  The Canadian ambassador and his lovely Asian wife were almost incidental in their roles, and the six Americans came across as nothing more than guests who had long overstayed their welcome in the Canadian ambassador's residence.

Of course, Kathryn Bigelow is deathlessly serious in her films, so I suppose by contrast Argo was a real crowd-pleaser.   It certainly won over the award shows, not only in Hollywood, but it picked up three Baftas as well.  I would think the British, if not anyone else, would see through this thinly veiled tribute to the CIA.


  1. I have wondered about this movie -- it's sort of a Middle Eastern war movie with a happy ending for a change. Did you know the CIA has an office in Hollywood? My guess is this is where the story came from. People apparently cheer at the end.

  2. The ending was so contrived. It is hard for me to imagine Iranian authorities wouldn't have called the air traffic control tower directly if they wanted to stop that plane, but it seems Affleck felt the need to juice up the ending a little.

  3. When the best picture Oscar was announced, my response was "ARGO?" Having seen the film, and having found it mildly entertaining, I couldn't believe that voters thought it was the best film of 2012. But then I remembered that this Oscar business is just one big Hollywood schmooze. Just last year the voters decied that The Artist, an entirely forgettable film, deserved a best picture Oscar. It looks to me that if you want to win a best picture Oscar, make a movie about movie making.

  4. http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=1438

  5. Thanks for the link, av. This is how I feel about Bigelow,

    "Compared to traditional Hollywood progressives seeking to convey a political message, Bigelow was influenced by postmodernism and semiotics in graduate school. In her earlier film The Hurt Locker, for example, it’s impossible to detect whether Bigelow was against the Iraq War or just deeply involved in the narrative arc of her characters. In a similar sense, Zero Dark Thirty is more about torture than a polemic against it."

    Having seen Hurt Locker.

  6. Thought you might enjoy that. I haven't seen any of the movies -- not my thing -- but the idea of the CIA using Hollywood to get out their message really stuck with me. Talk about covert action ...

    (Searching for Sugar Man won!)

  7. Interesting the way this movie is playing out politically. Seems conservatives like Argo, not so much because it is a feel-good movie, but because it reminds everyone of the Iran hostage crisis and the dismal job Carter did in handling it. The much maligned CIA had to come in to save the day. Yet, the CIA also hatched Operation Eagle Claw, which ended in failure in the desert of Iran with 8 marines dead when the helicopters went down that were supposed to rescue the other 52 Americans still left in Tehran.

    Conservatives apparently loathe ZD30 because it reminds them of the fact that it was the Obama administration that carried through on the hunt for OBL, not the Republicans.

  8. Even the Lincoln movie was apparently very political.

    And one of Obama's people - Stephanie Cutter -- was hired to promote Silver Linings, which explains why it showed up on all the msnbc news shows in one week.

    We live in very political or politicized times.

  9. Slight side track if you please ---



    Evidently, a couple of Israeli kids believe 9/11 is a joke of some kind. Very poor taste and tells us much about their parents.

    By contrast, Iran was the first country to send its official condolences when the attack took place.

  10. I was underwhelmed by Silver Linings also. Good performances but very weak script.

    I don't know how to get past all this politicization of Hollywood. Reminds me of the time Gump won best picture with its revisionist history of the Civil Rights movement. The movies this year weren't quite so obvious, but Hamilton Jordan, and in turn the Carter administration, was made to look very weak in Argo. Yet, Operation Eagle Claw was a CIA project as well and it ended in the deaths of 8 marines and no hostages returned home.

  11. "Evidently, a couple of Israeli kids believe 9/11 is a joke of some kind. Very poor taste and tells us much about their parents."

    I suppose there never will be a good time to poke fun at 911, but I agree not a very good idea.