Argo: A Story of Heroic Public Servants

When my twelve year old son and I entered the theater for the matinee showing of Argo last Saturday, his immediate observation was that “everyone here is probably old enough to remember the hostage crisis.” Despite his ageist attitude, he enjoyed Argo tremendously. So did I.

In its essence, Argo is a story of heroic public servants. The protagonist, CIA “exfiltration expert” Tony Mendez has the unenviable assignment of smuggling six American diplomats who are talking shelter in the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s residence out of Teheran while 52 of their compatriots are being held hostage in the American embassy.

Mendez approached his assignment with creativity: coming up with the idea that the six diplomats would assume identities of the Canadian crew of a Hollywood sci-fi movie intended to be filmed in Iran. Mendez and his CIA colleagues showed their expertise in making sure every detail was covered the story they spun and identities they created. Mendez was bold, in that, when his superiors decided to scrub the mission while he was on the scene in Teheran, he took the initiative and went ahead with it anyway. (This last aspect somewhat strains credulity, but even if exaggerated, it detracts little from Mendez’s overall heroism.)

The six diplomats were also heroic in that, despite doubts about the plan that they heatedly expressed, they flawlessly assumed their parts as Canadian film crew (Mike McEwen from Trawna, eh) and gave the correct answers –at gunpoint – to the Revolutionary Guards at Mehrabad Airport.

The plot moves along quickly, with just the right mix of humor about the fictitious sci-fi movie and tension about whether Mendez and the six diplomats can implement a bold plan in which failure would mean certain imprisonment and possible execution.

This is very much an instance of the heroic organizational fable. Mendez succeeds, and is recognized the Clandestine Service’s highest honor, given in a secret ceremony, of course. The organizational consequences are all redemptive. The six diplomats regain their freedom. Their escape was presented by President Carter as one of the rare bright moments in the Iranian hostage story. “The Canadian caper,” as it was called here, was certainly a feel-good story, but it didn’t give then Prime Minister Joe Clark enough bounce to win the 1980 election campaign.

In a classic example of “where you stand depends on where you sit” journalism, Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian broadcaster-writer of Iranian descent, criticized Argo in the Globe and Mail last Saturday for what he called “an unbalanced depiction of an entire national group” with “hordes of hysterical, screaming, untrustworthy, irrational, bearded and lethal antagonists” with “not one positive Iranian subject in the entire story.”

As has been pointed out by several who commented on his column, Gomeshi has the facts wrong. For instance, the Iranian housekeeper at the Canadian ambassador’s residence had figured out who the ambassador’s mysterious guests are, but when approached for questioning by the Revolutionary Guard, she refused to blow their cover. As a consequence, as soon as Ambassador Taylor returned to accolades in Canada, she left for Iraq as a refugee.

Ghomeshi also misses the point that the movie was portraying the Iranians as they were perceived by the CIA agent and American hostages, and they can be forgiven for seeing little nuance or ambiguity.

Comparisons with two other films come to mind. Charlie Wilson’s War also told the story of a heroic CIA agent, Gust Avrakotos, who worked with Congressman Charlie Wilson to arm the Afghan mujahideen who were fighting the Russian invasion. This story, however, ends with an ironic twist, in that the mujahideen eventually morphed in the Taliban.

The King’s Speech was another heroic tale of national revival, in which, with the assistance of his speech coach Lionel Logue, King George VI overcomes his stutter and becomes an effective spokesman for the nation during World War II. The King’s Speech was the big winner in the 2010 Academy Awards. IMDB showed that the King’s Speech received 231,000 votes, averaging 8.2 out of 10. So far, Argo has received 19,000 votes, averaging 8.4. So opinion of the film-watching public suggests that it stands a good chance of winning the award for best picture.

That, of course, depends on the competition, and it appears that a very strong competitor will be Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, to be released later this week. As an adaptation of Doris Kearn’s book Team of Rivals, I’m looking forward to a movie that portrays cabinet meetings. Shades of Yes Prime Minister? That will be the topic of my next blog post.


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