Middle Row, Centre: Argo Marks an Excellent Start to Oscar Season

With the summer blockbuster season now safely and mercifully behind us, it’s time for the major studios to start releasing the films that they’ll be pinning their Oscar hopes on come February. One of the first efforts out of the gate, Argo, already looks like a strong contender for best picture of the 2012-13 season.

The film is the first stab at directing for actor Ben Affleck, and he pulls this based-on-true –events drama off very well indeed. Affleck also stars as CIA veteran Tony Mendez, a leading figure in a part of the Iran hostage crisis that came to be known as “The Canadian Caper”.

It involved an elaborate ruse, initiated by the CIA in co-operation with the Canadian government of the day, to smuggle six American embassy staffers out of revolutionary Iran in January 1980. The six managed to evade capture, unbeknownst to the Iranians or the rest of the world, when followers of the newly-installed Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the American embassy in Tehran in early November 1979 and took fifty-two employees as hostages in a 444-day siege.

The six holed up for months in the residence of Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran, and the home of his friend, immigration officer John Sheardown. Ben Affleck’s character Mendez, who was an expert at smuggling people out of hostile countries, came up with a scheme to forge passports for the group, identifying them as the crew for Argo, a fake science-fiction film, scouting Iran for locations.

Argo follows the elaborate rescue operation with reasonably historic accuracy, embellishing in parts for dramatic effect. Mendez’s work with Hollywood special effects expert John Chambers (John Goodman) is humorously outlined, as the two set up their mythical Studio Six Productions, which in real life, as is depicted in Argo, actually received 26 scripts from directors shopping films, one of whom was Steven Spielberg, reputedly in the early stages of trying to get ET off the ground.

The Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who was deeply involved in assisting the CIA with plans for landing special forces assault teams in Iran, is played with remarkable aplomb by Canadian actor Victor Garber. He even bears a keen resemblance to Taylor.

Before the Argo scheme was set in motion, various plans for extracting the six were floated and subsequently rejected. One involved disguising them as English teachers working abroad, until intelligence officers realized that the Revolutionary Guard had closed down all the schools. Canadian foreign affairs minister Flora MacDonald suggested that they ride out of Iran on bicycles.

When the time came for the bogus film crew to leave after their scouting mission, their passage aboard a Swissair flight out of Tehran went off without a hitch, although the film has the plane being pursued along the tarmac by armed Revolutionary Guards who’ve caught wise to the scheme.

Argo is an excellent film with a topnotch cast and a plot that keeps up its suspense, gripping our interest all the more effectively by virtue of being based on actual events that only came to be fully disclosed in 1997, as part of the CIA’s 50th anniversary declassification of the operation.

Argo plays at the Qwanlin Cinema at 6:45 and 9:20 p.m., and is rated PG.

Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.

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