'Argo' and the Continuing Iranian Crisis

Americans escape Iran – with a little help from their friends.

The way it came down at the time, six Americans had been smuggled out of Iran “disguised as Canadians.” After more than 30 years we learn the CIA was also involved. In Hollywood the CIA has been a three-letter code for evil, but not so in Argo, which lays out the backstory in documentary-style footage and wiki-style commentary.

Iran is part of a great Persian legacy, it says. Mohammed Mossadegh is elected and nationalizes the oil business. In 1953 the U.S. and Britain engineer a coup and install the Shah, an evil man who tortures the people. When the Shah falls ill and leaves Iran in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns. The film fails to provide much background on Khomeini and other key players, including Jimmy Carter, a weak president treated far too kindly here.

As Muslim mobs attack the U.S. embassy, one American explains “we did it to them first with Mossadegh.” The invaders take embassy staff hostage and piece together shredded documents. For the most part the detail is accurate and convincing. The casting is superb, especially the six Americans who escape the embassy and take refuge in the residence of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.

The Iranians will torture and execute any Americans they catch, so the task is to get the six out of the country. Militants control the roads so they can’t drive. The State Department wants the Americans to pedal 300 miles on bicycles. Enter CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) who crafts a plan to get the six out as members of a Canadian film crew. For this plan to work he must concoct a fake film.

Enter John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), glib Hollywood insiders who put together Argo, a sci-fi fantasy picture, and deploy the press to promote the production. Washington big shots sign off on Argo as the best of many bad ideas for the escape, which is going to be tough. Iranian death squads are working three shifts and hanging people from construction cranes.

The Canadian ambassador’s Iranian housekeeper wonders why the six “guests” don’t go outside. They are convinced they are going to die in Tehran. Mendez must persuade them to adopt Canadian identities. More detail would have been played well here, especially the assistance from Ottawa.

The fake Canadians barely make it through an escorted trip through the Tehran bazaar. Now they must get on a Swissair flight to Zurich. Trouble is, Washington changes its mind about the escape plan, and the Muslim militants are getting wise. In a classic Hollywood narrow escape they give chase on the runway but the 747 lifts off, and when it clears Iranian airspace the champagne goes “pop.” It’s a feel-good moment but the story does not end there.

Mendez gets a secret award, the six escapees return to foreign service, and the audience is told that all the hostages are eventually released. Argo doesn’t explain that this only happened when Ronald Reagan took over the presidency. Reagan is absent from this story, and so is Canadian Prime Minister Joseph Clark, who readily signed on to the exfiltration.

Argo is not a message movie but lessons abound for all but the willfully blind. When an Islamic regime calls your country the “Great Satan,” you need to take them seriously. In times of crisis, U.S. leaders should pay special attention to their proven friends.

In Argo, the CIA men get most of the attention but they do recognize that “the Canadians are the good guys.” Without them, this “Canadian Caper,” as it was called, doesn’t happen. As the Canadian national anthem says, “Ton histoire est une épopée,
des plus brillants exploits.” Helping Americans escape from Iran was only one of those exploits. For a few more click on “World War II.”

Iranian tyrants dislike being deprived of torture subjects. Toward the end of Argo some Iranian official warns, “Canada will pay,” so the story continues. The Ayatollah Khomeini sent Iran to war against secularist Iraq but the regime’s real enemies are the United States and Israel, which it wants to eliminate entirely. That is why a genocidal Islamic theocracy is determined to develop nuclear weapons. That, and the regime’s sponsorship of terrorism, is why Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls Iran a “clear and present danger” and has broken off diplomatic relations.

Argo, meanwhile, is shaping up as a hit and certain to garner awards. That calls for a sequel, maybe something on the American hostages held by the Iranian regime for more than 400 days. That story might not be as exciting as the Canadian caper but it could render some strong tag lines. In San Diego a reporter asked a former hostage if he would ever return to Iran. He thought for a moment then said, “only in a B-52.”

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