Saturday, October 20, 2012

Truth and deceit take center stage in ‘Argo’

“Argo” (2012). Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, Rory Cochrane, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Željko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Page Leong, Sheila Vand. Director: Ben Affleck. Screenplay: Chris Terrio. Source Materials: “The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Science Fiction Film To Sneak Six Americans Out of Revolutionary Iran,” by Joshuah Bearman, Wired magazine, and The Master of Disguise, by Antonio J. Mendez.

Truth can be an elusive commodity, especially when intentionally tainted with deceit. It can be even more nebulous when the underlying intentions are being directed toward the fulfillment of a noble cause. Navigating the minefield of truth and deception is one of the tasks put to the characters in – and the audiences of – one of this year’s most anticipated new releases, director Ben Affleck’s historical thriller, “Argo.”

In November 1979, militants protesting the ongoing American presence in Iran seized the U.S, embassy in Tehran, an act in support of their country’s recent Islamic Revolution and in retribution for various grievances with their Western foe, some of which had been smoldering for decades. The protestors took 66 Americans hostage, 52 of whom would end up being held captive for 444 days. Their actions thus sparked a protracted, volatile diplomatic exchange between the two countries, one whose ramifications were wide-ranging (and whose impact has been felt ever since).

While the world’s attention was focused on events at the embassy, however, another incident involving Americans was quietly playing out in the shadows of Tehran. And, although this second crisis was smaller in scale, it nevertheless carried implications potentially as significant as those unfolding at the captured diplomatic compound.

At the time the embassy was overrun, six Americans managed to elude the protestors by escaping through a back entrance. They eventually made their way to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who agreed to take them in while plans for their escape from Iran were developed. But, after weeks in hiding, and with growing concerns about the Americans’ continued safety (not to mention that of their Canadian hosts), Taylor contacted U.S. government officials for help.

Intelligence officials in the U.S. debated a number of options, all of which proved unworkable. It became apparent that getting the six Americans out of Iran would take a miracle, a rescue plan that would clearly involve thinking outside of the box. That’s where CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) came into play. As a specialist proficient in hatching deceptive schemes to extricate individuals from dangerous situations, Mendez was charged with developing a convincing ruse for safely and clandestinely escorting the Americans out of Iran. His plan was, to say the least, unique.

Mendez proposed that he visit Iran posing as a producer from a Canadian film production company that was scouting locations for a science fiction movie, titled “Argo,” to be shot in Tehran and its surroundings. While in country, he would meet with the Americans, provide them with fabricated Canadian identities and professional dossiers (as members of a fictitious film production crew), and then quietly usher them out of Iran on a flight bound for Zürich, Switzerland.

But to make the plan work, it had to appear credible in case anyone decided to investigate the cover story. And so, in advance of his trip to Iran, Mendez worked with Hollywood professionals to set up a phony production company for the bogus film and to generate publicity for it. Mendez tapped one of his longtime associates, Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to head up the newly created Studio Six Productions, giving the project an air of seeming legitimacy. With the dummy company in place (and the Hollywood press buying every word of its trumped-up promotion), and with the official (but secret) blessings of both the U.S. and Canadian governments, the stage was set for Mendez to embark on his journey, one that was fraught with twists, turns and perils right up until the time of the Americans’ flight to freedom.

Questions of truth and deceit, to a great degree, rest on the issue of believability, the driving force in conscious creation, and those considerations certainly take center stage in “Argo” in numerous ways. For instance, those behind the rescue plan – most notably Mendez, Siegel, Chambers and Mendez’s boss (Bryan Cranston) – understand what’s at stake and what’s needed to carry it out successfully. And even though an intentional deception may be involved, it’s an integral part of the plan, one necessary to formulate the beliefs required for manifesting the trapped Americans’ safe return.

Indeed, the very workability of the plan depends on the Iranians believing as truth the deceit being put forth by Mendez and company. For that to happen, the participants in the deception need to accept its validity just as fervently as those being fooled. The trapped American embassy workers ultimately must follow Mendez’s lead in thoroughly buying into their contrived identities as Canadian nationals employed by a film production company. To do less would place them in jeopardy, especially in light of the intense scrutiny that Westerners leaving the country were subjected to by Iranian security officials.

The inherent difficulty in this should be obvious, especially for those who genuinely embrace the role of integrity in belief formation and reality creation. This becomes most apparent in the doubts expressed by Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), one of the six Mendez is charged with rescuing. He’s initially convinced he won’t be able to pull it off. But Stafford’s attitude quickly changes when Mendez reminds him that his life depends on being able to carry out the deception. When faced with the virtual certainty of execution if caught and captured by the Iranians, Stafford goes along with the plan, the painful “truth” of the inevitable alternative outweighing whatever belief compromises he must make in carrying out the ruse. When the continued viability of one’s existence is threatened, it can become remarkably easy to adjust one’s beliefs to accommodate the prevailing circumstances.

Of course, truth and deceit figure into this film in ways other than just its narrative. They play a significant role in the picture’s historical accuracy, and it’s on this point where “Argo” lets its viewers down. This film brings new meaning to the phrase “based on a true story,” mainly because of its glaring deviations from how events were said to have unfolded. Several events are presented out of historical sequence, Siegel’s character is a fictitious composite and the film’s concluding segment, when viewed in light of the Wired magazine article upon which the screenplay is based, is a complete fabrication.

While I understand that “Argo” is meant to be entertainment and not a documentary, I nevertheless object to the filmmakers taking such license with the facts. As one who spent years studying and working in the fields of journalism and history, it’s troubling that the picture’s creators felt the need to alter the historical account to such a degree just to sell movie tickets. To be fair, this film does give due credit to the previously unrecognized American heroes who participated in this endeavor. That’s important because, for years after the rescue, CIA involvement in the affair was classified, and all of the accolades went to the brave Canadians who sheltered the trapped Americans (as was widely depicted in press reports at the time and in a 1981 made-for-Canadian-TV movie, “Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper.”) However, such overdue recognition, in my opinion, has been unduly tarnished by the embellished treatment given to the American heroes’ story.

So what’s the bottom line for this film? In my view, it depends on what you hope to get out of it. If you’re looking for an entertaining thriller, go see it; you won’t be disappointed by its taut level of suspense and its well-crafted action sequences. The performances by its ensemble cast are stellar, too, especially those of Arkin, who turns in some of his best work as the wise-cracking producer, and Affleck, who successfully resists his usual temptation to mug for the camera and gives one of the most mature portrayals of his career.

However, if, like me, you’re a stickler for authenticity, you’ll likely come away from this film disappointed. In addition to its historical narrative problems, “Argo” also suffers from extreme mood changes that don’t mesh well with one another. The tension generated by the dramatic segments set in Tehran and Washington contrasts sharply with the more light-hearted humorous sequences shot in Hollywood. Each is done well by itself, but, regrettably, they don’t integrate effectively. Admittedly, successfully fusing life in two very different worlds is a challenging undertaking, but it can be done, as was the case, for example, in “The Crying Game” (1992). “Argo,” unfortunately, doesn’t measure up in this regard.

Most critics have been favorably impressed with this offering, and the picture has received considerable awards season buzz. But, considering both the film’s strengths and shortcomings, it’s hard to say exactly how truly deserving it is of the praise it has received. In the end, it all probably depends on one’s expectations. And that’s the truth.

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