1/14/2013 9:50:00 AM
I’ know I’m a little late to the party…but I finally got around to seeing “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s treatment of the “Canadian Caper,” in which 6 members of the US Embassy staff in Iran were smuggled out through the Canadian Embassy. It was the sliver of good news in the Hostage Crisis that would last 444 days and end the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
I’ve read many books about Carter’s presidency, as well as the Iran Hostage Crisis. When you work in talk radio, you hear the one dimensional version.
Carter weak/Reagan strong/hostages released before Ronnie dropped the bomb.
It wasn’t true, but complexity doesn’t fly in talk radio, and that version does a better job of fitting on a bumper sticker than “The Iranians were so pissed at Carter for taking in the Shah that they kept the hostages to embarrass him politically.”
The Hostage Crisis was also a turning point for TV news. In the late 70’s, network news divisions went from public service to profit center. Dan Rather was on the cover of “Rolling Stone.” Walter Cronkite became a national treasure. Roone Arledge jumped from ABC Sports to ABC News, revolutionizing electronic journalism in the process.
By 1979, network news divisions were in a state of transition. They were still run by the old guard of Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Frank Reynolds; but they had access to the graphics, theme music, and satellite hookups that would take TV news into the 80’s and beyond.
TV news footage serves as a greek chorus in “Argo.” The movie starts with a tense sequence showing protestors storming the embassy. Six staffers escape out the back door, and find refuge in the Canadian Embassy.
Ben Affleck, playing CIA operative Tony Mendez, wakes up to Tom Brokaw on “Today” announcing the Iranians had stormed the embassy. The centerpiece of Affleck’s office at the CIA is the bank of TV tuned to ABC, NBC, and CBS. Carter’s Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan (played with startling accuracy by Kyle Chandler) watches a news update from the late Jessica Savitch.
Flash forward to January 1980. Washington is covered in yellow ribbons. The State Department has discovered that six embassy staffers are missing, and that the Canadians have six “house guests.” They have to find a way to get them out of Iran before the Revolutionary Government finds out. Affleck comes up with a plan: say they are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie called Argo.
In order to create the fake production, he enlists his makeup artist friend John Goodman and movie producer Alan Arkin (who did not exist in real life). Mendez goes to Iran, and the movie is off and running.
The movie itself is gorgeous. The set design is just fantastic. It was 1980. The TV news footage came right out of the networks’ archives. If Affleck needed to move the plot along, all he had to do was cue up Ted Koppel.
“The Love Boat will be delayed for 15 minutes while we bring you this ABC News Special Report…..”
The period accurate use of TV should not come as a surprise. George Clooney is the producer, and he’s knows his TV. His father, Nick Clooney, was a legendary TV newsman in Cincinatti:
Affleck takes some liberties with the story. But the end result is a taut, engaging story that should serve as a jumping off point for someone who wants to learn more.
Here’s a PBS documentary from 1980 about the Canadian Caper. The role of the CIA would remain secret until it was declassified by President Clinton in 1997.
As history movies go, you can’t top “Lincoln.” But “Argo” is pretty damn good. You’ll like it.