Mission impossible

The term ‘exfil’ (short for exfiltrate, opposite of infiltrate) is CIA spook-speak for hostage rescue. ‘Argo’ tells the story of a daring operation in the late 70s, master-minded by the agency’s top exfil specialist Tony Mendez. Mendez is a real person, now aged 71, decorated by Jimmy Carter and living in retirement in rural Maryland.

Literature and the cinema abound with hostage rescue stories pre-dating the Argo saga: from Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel and Dickens’ Sydney Carton to Oscar Schindler and the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The 20th century’s most daring rescues were probably the SAS raid on the London Iranian embassy and Operation Entebbe, when 256 hostages held by the Palestinian Popular Front were rescued from Entebbe Airport in 1976 by Israeli special forces. The latter operation was to inspire two rival movies, one starring Burt Lancaster and the other with Charles Bronson.

Ayatollah Khomeini

‘Argo’ is set in 1979. It opens with a neat mini-documentary, using contemporary newsreel footage of Persia/Iran’s recent political turmoil: the removal (by a coup organised for Britain by the CIA) of the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, the sudden fall from grace of the Shah and the hero’s return of Ayatollah Khomeini.

It was in that heady revolutionary year that a huge crowd stormed the fortress-like American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 staff members hostage (they were subsequently detained for over 14 months). But records seized by the Iranian police showed a staff roster of 58: six Americans had slipped out by a back entrance shortly before the building was occupied. The group seeks sanctuary in the Canadian ambassador’s official residence nearby, remaining there undetected for 11 weeks.

Mendez (played by Ben Affleck, who also directs) is called in by the state department to devise a rescue operation. Initial ideas are pretty feeble: get some bicycles delivered for them to cycle to Turkey, or tell the authorities they’re returning Canadian schoolteachers – even though all English-speaking schools have been closed for three months.

Inspired by a late-night viewing of ‘Planet of the Apes’, Mendez comes up with the idea that the CIA should set up a fake film production company, acquiring a treatment of a mystical sci-fi movie (‘Argo’), set on a colonised planet, requiring scenes of vast desert landscapes. It is these Iranian locations which the six fugitives will claim to have been surveying prior to their dash for freedom (with false passports and personas) on one of the last Swissair flights out of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.  Instead of guns, the CIA’s exfil expert comes armed with storyboards.

Too bizarre to be believable? The CIA’s history is littered with loopy capers, few of which ever came off. There’s the legendary exploding cigar which Fidel Castro never smoked, or the explosive conch shell which was to have been left on his favourite scuba-diving beach. JFK’s secretary of state Alan Dulles even sought suggestions from Bond author Ian Fleming, asking him: “What would M have done to eliminate Castro?” But a re-reading of an article by Joshuah Bearman, published in 2007 in the American ‘Wired’ magazine, shows that the movie’s script (by Chris Terrio) keeps remarkably closely to the facts. And the appearance of George Clooney’s name on the producer credits certainly adds an air of political verisimilitude.

Back in Washington, the top brass are singularly underwhelmed by the details of the CIA plan, grouchily dismissing it as a very bad idea. But time is running out. The Canadian ambassador has told them he intends to quit Tehran himself and drive over the Turkish border. “This is the best bad idea we have sir … by far”, Mendez assures a truculent secretary of state.

Though made on a modest budget (this is no Die Hard blockbuster) ‘Argo’ succeeds in cranking up the tension by degree. Omnipresent images of the Ayatollah (was there ever an official portrait with more menace, whose eyes follow you around the room), the bodies of executed dissidents publicly exhibited from the jibs of construction cranes, and the presence of sinister-looking Revolutionary Guards all add to the febrile atmosphere.

Midway through the movie, light relief arrives in the form of two exquisite cameo roles: from Alan Arkin – as a wrinkled old Hollywood mogul brought in to advise on movie authenticity – and portly John Goodman (one of the stalwarts of the Coen Brothers’ repertory company – remember him as the toad-crushing bible salesman in ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’) as costume adviser to this movie which will never be made.

If this month’s Oscars had a ‘feel-good’ category, ‘Argo’ would certainly be a contender (receiving a whopping seven nominations in total, it’s about the only award it won’t be a contender for). It gets a total of eight screenings (mornings, afternoons and evenings) at the Courtyard, between 25–28 February.

Gaffer

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