Is there a more compelling movie than Argo? Usually, in my experience, a film’s power to compel centres around evocativeness – the scenes before your eyes make you cry or laugh or hate. Or love. But Argo is a whole different kettle of fish. It might be a historically inaccurate slant on the events of 1979, but Hollywood has never struck me as a place where fabrications have been passed off as truths. Even Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s umpteenth great film, was entirely accurate about its portrayal/non-portrayal of slavery. Back to Argo, the film, however.
The power Argo wielded over me was not emotional per se. Instead, bit by unknowing bit, I was sucked into the movie like a 3D screen sucks its audience in. From a nonchalant but interested bystander taking in the umpteenth film, you become very much a very affected and absorbed actor.
Every event – interpersonal and interdepartmental squabbles, the professionals and liberators building an all very believable facade, the trapped constructing their own facades to match the elaborate facade back home, the gradual realization, a result of painstaking attention to detail and reconstruction, of the Iranians that something may be amiss – in the movie builds you up to a nail-gnawingly slow fifteen minutes towards it end. Suddenly, you are the seventh American in that terribly hostile Tehran airport however with a little added advantage: omnipotence. Ironically, this God-like view you have of events is your undoing. No amount of preparation by Tony Mendez can be enough.
But first, you have to play preparation games. Off you go with Tony Mendez in a bus to try out your disguises right in the belly of a murderous horde – a location scout. Then you encounter the mother of all terrors – a volatile Iranian crowd protesting vigorously.
“This is the end”, you hear Adele sing, but somehow, the crowd lets you through inch by scary inch. Then Reza Bolhani, the Iranian cultural liaison puts Baker through a test: “Is this film a foreign bride film?” Baker is incredulous. “Sorry?” he replies. With a smile on his face, Reza continues: “A film where a foreign bride comes to Iran but she doesn’t understand the language or the customs and there is misunderstanding and laughs…?” Baker chuckles his relief: “Oh, no.”
On the surface of it, Reza Bolhani’s questions are innocuous enough: he just wants some clarification about what sort of film a bunch of foreigners are coming to shoot in his country. But the prevalent mood in Iran is such that you suspect that if Baker, the faux director, had given an answer in the affirmative, he would have landed you all in hot water. And really, Baker doesn’t look to you like one who would think on his feet were the proposed movie not in fact Argo, a space thriller, but a foreign bride film as Reza had so innocently but devilishly suggested. The visit does not end particularly well but mission had at least been accomplished.
Back home, at the Canadian ambassador’s house where you had found refuge along with your other six, Iranian security officials were snooping. Your poor omnipotent soul sees how Sahar, an Iranian cleaner at the house, confronted by the slickness of an Iranian official could have given you away. He appeals to her religiosity with a thinly veiled threat before asking: “How long have the visitors of the [Canadian] Ambassador been here?” Sahar’s eyes bulge just the slightest, but she maintains her confident mien quite remarkably. “Two days ago,” she supplies, with the appropriate facial expression.”Everyone here is a friend of Iran.” Sahar adds the necessary sycophancy. You heave a sigh of relief.
Now, Sahar’s face could have betrayed that she knew more than she was letting on. Oju l’oro wa, the Yorubas say. Your expression is more likely to signify meaning than mere words. Worse, if she had succumbed to the religious seduction of her countryman, the whole escape escapade would have unravelled right there. The ambassador’s visitors had in fact been arrived more than two months ago, and not two days, as Sahar had so graciously supplied.
And back home, the typical interdepartmental squabble, a result of a typical overreliance on electronic intelligence by decision makers in Washington threatens to KO the progress made. A halt is called on Tony’s mission, in favour of a boots-and-gun rescue in the event that the six are captured, as they inevitably will be.
D-Day. Tony decides to blunder through on his own, in the hope that his decisiveness would spark some decisiveness stateside.
Your sense of dread heightens as the attendant – with her exotic Mediterranean looks and cultured unaccented customer relations voice – tells you: “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t seem to have these reservations.” While you are nearly peeing your pants, Tony is the picture of perfect calm. With that contrite bushy look on his face, he can bluff his way through any situation and not look like it.
Would you mind checking again? Tony’s leap of faith.
Meanwhile, you are aware of the frantic interdepartmental calls back in the United States. You are also aware of The Agency throwing its weight around and moving heaven and earth to confirm those tickets.
My apologies. It just came through. Pretty face smiles.
Your omnipotence becomes your curse as back at the embattled embassy, a boy, no more than five, has just assembled a semblance of one of you from slivers of shredded paper. We’ve got to hurry! Of course, Tony cannot hear you and neither can you force the Iranians’ hands.
Another intense drama: An officer type cannot find corroborating evidence for your “disembarkation form”. The truth is: he’ll never find that form but a “letter”, forged no doubt, should make sure this hurdle is hair-raising but ultimately minor. The man makes an elaborate show of his brief investigation but finally has his aide stamp you through. Checkpoint scaled.
Back at the embassy, an Iranian revolutionary matches the boy’s confetti artwork to a face. The face is one of the six embassy officials who have hitherto been unaccounted for. No, this cannot be happening. We cannot be discovered! Not now.
Things are getting pear-shaped at the airport too. The final hurdle is manned by Western educated elite Revolutionary Guard personnel. It is immediately apparent this checkpoint is different: the Guard guy begins to speak rapid Farsi, a tactic designed to fluster the exit-seekers.
In this part of the world, we are a lot familiar with deaf police and military personnel who will not listen to your argument, no matter the merits, until perhaps you sort them. The Revolutionary Guard guy is just the same except that he is motivated, quite strongly so, by a desire to catch Americans trying to escape hell. Nothing else. He herds all seven of you into an adjoining room where he hopes to grill you into admitting you are conniving Americans. The prospects are bleak till a miracle happens.
Thomas, in this movie known as Stafford, who is the most jittery of the lot, and had been vehement in his opposition to Tony’s plans steps up and begins to speak perfect Farsi. He spreads out a newspaper to show Revolutionary Guard guy (RGG) a poster of Argo. Argo a filme in Iran, he says, but don’t take my word for it. True to type, Revolutionary Guard guy swats this new challenge aside and regains the upper hand. But Stafford isn’t done. “Hand me the storyboards,” he says to Kevin, heralding one of the most remarkable passages of action in the entire movie. In that same immaculate Farsi, he begins to explain the movie, using the storyboards, to RGG.
You marvel at his emotive narration. RGG takes a step back to regard Stafford in admiration; Tony can’t quite disguise surprise and marvel behind his expressionless face; Stafford is carried away and begins to add special effects; director Baker cracks open one side of his mouth to smile. Finally, RGG puts a halt to the performance.
“You don’t go until we verify.” For the first time, RGG, glaring malevolently at the crew, speaks English, confirming the quickfire Farsi he had been speaking all along had been a ruse to knock you off your balance.
Tony hands out his card to RGG. “You can call our office. They’ll verify.” Tony must be a praying man you conclude. Tony’s second, more understandable leap of faith. RGG accepts the challenge.
Now, your omnipotent eye roves over to the office Tony just spoke of. A movie scene is being shot. Two of the collaborators central to the success of the escape plan look on, having been prevented from passing because of the movie being shot. You remember they have been told to pack up, therefore they do not owe anyone any sort of vigilance as might have been expected if the pack-up order hadn’t come. Away from the gaze of everyone, except of course you, RGG picks up a newspaper in his office and begins to flip through, seeking news of Argo. Outside, the final boarding announcement for your Swiss Air flight has just been announced. Dread. The director of the movie cuts and your two collaborators see an opening, but the cameras are already rolling again. RGG fingers Tony’s card, as if the card hold secrets that would yield to his caress, and begins to dial. Back in the vacant office, a few agonising metres away, the phone begins to trill. Let them pass! You yell at the idiot holding back your two collaborators. Soon, the maverick Alan Arkin, now impatient, takes matters into his own hands in his inimitable style.
Get to the office quick! C’mon! You’re beckoning at the screen now, like your silent urgings would cause the movie to unravel any quicker. And on the last ring, John Goodman, picks up.
“May I speak to a Mr Kevin Harkins?” RGG springs his trap.
Fail. For RGG. Triumph for you. You wheel about in your head, and thump the air – in a fast one-two combination – in triumph.
Meanwhile, a group of Iranian security officials breaks into the Canadian ambassador’s house in search of its occupants. The confetti portrait had already begun to work.
Doors are closing for Flight 363 to Zurich. RGG had better make a show right this minute. A flight attendant had just announced that heaven’s gates were about to be shut. RGG appears, like he had been listening to you. Freedom. Tony hands the storyboards to a couple of star-struck Revolutionary Guard toughs and hurries off to the gates. Almost immediately, you spot one of the Iranians who broke into the ambassador’s house beelining for a phone, presumably to alert those at the airport as to a likely escape of Americans.
Move it! You have been found out! Shove your pretty asses quick up that plane and get out! The bus supposed to convey you to the plane stalls twice. Start the fuck up! Can’t you see they are coming? Back inside the terminal, an Iranian is running down like a man possessed. RGG who always appears to wear a sense of foreboding on his face kicks into action immediately the mad man draws near.
Swiss Air 363, you’re number two for departure. Number two? Number two? Can’t you see the bloodguzzling Iranians are coming?
And in a madcap finale, a couple of Iranians jump into vans and cars and begin to chase down the airplane which had only begun taxiing. You wish you could shove the plane down the run away and into the air but sadly, you can’t. You wait. Your heart is thumping. It’s only a movie but your heart is thumping. The Iranians in their cars are bearing down on the plane. Swiss Air 363 has just been cleared for takeoff. The plane picks up speed; the Iranians are underneath its massive wings now and are trying to cut across the plane’s front tires. Tony spots them from his window. An Iranian aims his gun at the front tires in desperation but to fire upon that plane would have been an act of war, an excuse for might of the US military to descend upon Iran. The plane pulls away and up into the skies. It had been this close.
“Argo fuck yourself!” I screamed, startling the other two blessed souls flanking me, who had equally been absorbed in this battle of wits. “Argo fuck yourself!” I’m sure I tweeted something equally orgasmic; can’t be bothered to go looking for it now.
And if you wondered about the whereabouts of poor Iranian Sahar, well, here’s your answer:
In conclusion, if you made it through this piece to this point and have a complaint, I’ll kindly advise you thus:
No hard feelings, or even feelings at all. Keep it tasty. 😀