Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Argo Affleck Yourself! (Going Hollywood to Go Home)

What with the fallout from the Petraeus affair, not to mention the tragic attack in Benghazi, the CIA hasn’t been looking too good of late. That’s why it was a pleasant change to see Argo, in which – during the dark days of the 1979 Iranian revolution -- CIA operatives were crafty enough to spirit six Americans away from bloodthirsty Tehran mobs.

For those of us who survived the early Eighties, Argo provides flashbacks to some very bad times. Who can forget the period when 52 members of the American Embassy staff were held for 444 days by their Iranian captors? News broadcasts of that era signed off nightly with a reminder of how long our fellow citizens had been incarcerated, and it was hard to look past the fact that our country looked mighty helpless when faced with the strange new world of religious terrorism. Argo captures that era in masterful detail: the constant media barrage, Jimmy Carter looking grim, everyone’s really awful fashion sense.

Argo is the story of a small victory that occurred in the middle of a great disaster. Leave it to Hollywood to understand that the public likes true stories, but wants them to have happy endings. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, an astonishingly real saga of a GI bomb disposal team in Iraq, may have won the 2008 Oscar, but few people bought tickets to see it. (The same might hold true for Bigelow’s latest, Zero Dark Thirty, which unsparingly chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden.) Argo, on the other hand, has been a certifiable hit. Partly that’s due to actor/director Ben Affleck’s sure hand at the helm. Partly, too, it reflects the audience’s fascination with tales of derring-do, subterfuge, and breathless escape – the ingredients that go into the best James Bond spy thrillers.

Ironically, one reason that Argo works so well as a Hollywood movie is that there’s a very Hollywood strand to its plot. It seems that CIA “extraction” expert Tony Mendez (a nicely low-key performance by Affleck) actually did smuggle the six Americans out of their hiding place by disguising them as a Canadian film production unit, visiting Tehran on a location scout for a sci-fi fantasy flick. To accomplish this, he partnered with Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, best known (until now) as the greasepaint genius behind Planet of the Apes. In Argo, Chambers (deliciously played by John Goodman) joins forces with over-the-hill producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin at his most impish) to give an industry imprimatur to the bogus movie. Their banter adds an essential element of humor to the proceedings, providing an effective break in the mounting tension. (Says Lester to Mendez at one point, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.”)

Other Hollywood touches: At a reading of the script at the Beverly Hilton, intended to get the trade press talking about the non-existent film project, the always-bodacious Adrienne Barbeau takes the role of Serksi the Galactic Witch. And at Tehran’s airport some potentially hostile Iranian guards can’t disguise their child-like enthusiasm for the fake film’s gorgeously drawn storyboards.

Part of the point, it seems, is that everyone’s a sucker for Let’s Pretend. This fact helps save the six Americans, but it works conversely as well. In passing, we see a brief but horrifying incident that really happened: Iranian revolutionaries terrorizing American hostages by standing them up in front of what turns out to be a fake firing squad. It’s a heart-stopping moment. But ultimately this film about the NOT making of a film achieves what we’ve wanted all along: a Hollywood ending.


  1. I had heard bits and pieces about this movie, and was intrigued by John Goodman playing John Chambers - but now you've sealed the deal - I will definitely be watching this movie. Thanks for the informational post!

  2. Be sure to tell me your reaction, Mr. Craig. Did you know John Chambers?

  3. I did not know him, but I did work with a special effects man name Bill Purcell who'd worked on several big Fox films, including Planet of the Apes, and he told some good stories about his time on those films. But I've been a John Chambers fan for decades, since first seeing the Apes movies on TV.

  4. Well, it only took six months - but I finally saw Argo! Marvelous movie! Well handled throughout, with ever mounting suspense (whether you know the ending or not) and terrific performances all around. I was shocked at the state of the Hollywood sign as the 80's began - do you have any insight into that?

  5. I don't have much insider info, but the Wikipedia site is helpful. I knew that the original wooden letters (built to advertise a real estate development called Hollywoodland) was deteriorating badly, and were eventually replaced with metal. but apparently this happened in 1978, so Argo fudged the dates a bit. One of the main donors was Alice Cooper, who replaced the second O to honor his friend and admirer, Groucho Marx. What I DO remember specifically was a much later concern about the property near the sign. Around 2009 it was up for sale, and there was a worry about mini-mansions encroaching. A campaign was launched by the Trust for Public Land, and many (including me) contributed. But the big hero was Hugh Hefner, whose major donation made the saving of the land possible.