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Jane Ahlin, Published October 20 2012

Ahlin: Movie ‘Argo’ good antidote to campaign bombardment

For candidates, this is homestretch. For the rest of us, it’s time either to turn off the TV or to buck up for saturation bombing by their commercials. Since the controversial “Citizens United” decision by the Supreme Court gave a green light to advertising by heavily funded and pretty much unaccountable special interest groups, the bombardment seems worse than ever. Sad but true, we’d almost rather see ads for erectile dysfunction drugs.

Well … almost.

Here’s an antidote: Take in the movie “Argo.” Not only is it a terrific movie, but “Argo” also is based on a true story that makes viewers feel good about America.

The movie opens on Nov. 4, 1979, the day an Iranian mob attacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 hostages in all, although within a few weeks several women and black men were released. One other hostage who became ill later also was released. That left 52 hostages who spent 444 days in captivity.

Not known by the Iranians early on was that six Americans had gotten away and, after hiding out in Tehran for a few days, were taken in by Canadian embassy officials. Rescuing them – an effort that was dubbed “The Canadian Caper” once it was completed – is the film’s story. More specifically, although escape could not have been achieved without the bravery and willingness of the Canadians, the role of the CIA in carrying out the clandestine endeavor is the astonishing story.

As told in a 2007 article by Joshua Berman for “Wired” (from which the script for “Argo” was developed) the CIA operation was, at best, implausible. The short version is that a career CIA operative named Tony Mendez, who at age 38 was the person in charge of “tens of thousands of false identities the CIA was running,” came up with a crazy idea. The group of six – two women and four men – were to pose as a Canadian film crew interested in shooting a movie in Iran. Pretending to only have been in Iran for a few days, they would exit on a regular commercial jet right out of Iran’s biggest airport with false passports. (An interesting sidelight is that Canada’s parliament met in secret to authorize false passports for the six.)

Mendez contacted John Chambers, a Hollywood makeup artist who had done the makeup for “Planet of the Apes” and helped Mendez before. Chambers took Mendez to meet Bob Sidell, a veteran special effects expert and the two agreed to set up a fake production company. If anybody checked up on the film crew, there would be a realistic Hollywood connection.

Chambers is played by John Goodman and Sidell by Alan Arkin, both terrific as cynical old hands who couldn’t be more in tune to constructing a fake company that would be believed in Hollywood. In fact, a funny sidelight is that in the few weeks their fake company existed, it appeared so real they received a script proposal from Steven Spielberg.

Although viewers know how the story will end, tension is ever-present. Even during the amusing Hollywood stuff, we never forget how high the stakes are and how easily something could go wrong. Real footage from news reports during the crisis adds to the sobering back-story.

The film ends with photos of the real Tony Mendez and six Americans, the real Hollywood guys, and the real Canadian embassy people and American political leaders alongside their film counterparts. Watching President Jimmy Carter praising the Canadians is ironic now. Until “The Canadian Caper” was declassified in the late 1990s, Carter could be given no credit for authorizing it, although he took the blame for “Operation Eagle Claw,” the attempt to rescue the 52 hostages that resulted in an Army helicopter crash, killing eight soldiers and cementing Carter’s label as a “weak” president.

Maybe that’s part of why viewers leave the film sobered but hopeful. As election nears and politicians sling mud at one another, it’s good to be reminded that crazy creativity, unflinching bravery, and unheralded success have been important American ideals.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.