Argo

Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2011 and only two others, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film editing; Life of Pi got four Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Les Miserables, but not Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook or Zero Dark Thirty.

The Hugo that year went to The Avengers, and SFWA’s Ray Bradbury Award to Beasts of the Southern Wild. The other films that I have seen from that year are The Hobbit part 1, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables, Brave, Wreck it Ralph and Total Recall. Also, I haven’t yet sat down and watched the whole film, but the Bollywood dance scene set in Dublin from Ek Tha Tiger is a classic.

Sorry about that. I’m just obsessed.

Anyway, back to Argo. IMDB users rate it 10th and 20th film of the year on the different rankings, which is not brilliant but not as bad as last year’s The Artist. Ahead of it on both rankings are Django Unchained, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit 1, The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Skyfall and The Amazing Spider-Man. I would also have put it middle of the pack, but some serious issues came up that bump it to a much lower position in my ranking.

Here’s a trailer.

Returning from previous Oscar winners (and one Hugo winner): first and foremost, Ben Affleck, the star and director here, was Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love.

John Goodman, who is prosthetics expert John Chambers here (the man who invented Spock’s ears, received a special Oscar for Planet of the Apes, and also did Richard Harris’s chest for that scene in A Man Called Horse), was producer Al Zimmer in The Artist last year.

From a previous Hugo winner, Alan Arkin is Hollywood producer Lester Siegel here, and was paterfamilias Bill in Edward Scissorhands back in 1990. (Like many of us, he had more hair then.)

Finally, the Canadian ambassador is played by Victor Garber, who is genuinely Canadian, but I flagged him up previously for his role as the only identifiably Northern Irish character in an Oscar-winning film – Thomas Andrews, the designer of Titanic.

This is the fairly incredible story, Based On True Facts, of how the CIA with help from Canada exfiltrated six American diplomats from Tehran shortly after the seizure of the US Embassy in 1979, by posing as a Canadian film crew looking for locations to make a film version of Roger Zelazny’s great novel Lord of Light.

There are lots of things to like here. But I was dismayed to discover from the memoir by Tony Mendez, the CIA guy behind it all, that the film is significantly more white and male than the real events on which it is based. One of the trapped diplomats, Cora Lijek (who prefers Cora Amburn-Lijek) is a Japanese-American in real life; here she is with the very non-Japanese Clea DuVall who portrays her in the film. (Not that the role is very demanding; the trapped diplomats are basically peril monkeys.)

The film has only one Canadian diplomat, Ambassador Ken Taylor, and his wife Pat, who is also Asian and at least is portrayed by Chinese-Australian actor Page Leong. But in real life, the chief immigration officer and deputy Canadian ambassador, John Sheardown, played a crucial role, along with his wife Zena who is from Guyana. Here she is hosting the fugitives in her house, including Cora Amburn-Lijek on the left.

Almost everyone involved in the story on the US government side was, of course, a white man. But in the book, Mendez is very clear that one memorable meeting – where he made a remark about abortion that is preserved in the screenplay – was chaired by “an undersecretary of state, a dignified woman who was very much in charge.” It took very little research to work out that this must have been Lucy W. Benson, the first woman appointed as US Undersecretary of State; she had left office before the diplomats were successfully extracted from Iran, but would have necessarily been involved with the initial approval process. In his book, Mendez refers respectfully several times to her interventions in the crucial meeting. But on screen, everyone in the room at that meeting is male.

According to Wikipedia, when asked how he felt about being portrayed by Ben Affleck, who is non-Hispanic, Mendez (who was born in Nevada) noted that losing his father when he was young meant he did not learn Spanish nor much of his father’s culture. He said, “I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert.” Which is fine; but Affleck did not grow up in the desert either, and his character in the film tells us that he is from New York (Affleck is from Boston), rather than Nevada. A smaller point, but Mendez in real life has three children, a daughter and two sons. In the film he has only one child. Would you like to guess… Yep.

Tony Mendez (the real one) meets President Carter

So basically, Argo whitewashes the protagonist, whitewashes one of the two significant Asian women in the story, erases the most significant black woman in the story, erases the most politically important woman in the story, and even erases the protagonist’s daughter in favour of her brother. Affleck is entitled to make the film he wants to make, and to make the artistic choices that seem right for the story he wants to tell; I too have the right to point out that a lot of these choices go in one direction and not the other, and that the story he tells is much more about white guys vs brown guys than the True Facts that it is Based On. Whitewashing, and erasing women’s agency, are par for the course in Hollywood adaptations, but I can’t remember anything this extensive since All The King’s Men removed the entire African-American population of Louisiana.

It should also be noted that the Canadians dispute the centrality of the CIA to the story, arguing that a lot more of the heavy lifting was done in Ottawa and especially by their embassy in Tehran. And it’s also clear from Mendez’ published memoir that the last-minute hitches portrayed in the film – mission almost cancelled by cold feet in Washington, Iranian security deducing the plan and storming the air traffic control tower in a futile attempt to prevent the departure – are pretty fictional. I’m more forgiving of these changes; it’s a drama, not a documentary, after all. But the Canadians do have a right to feel miffed. (As do the shades of Roger Zelazny and Jack Kirby.)

Apart from that, I quite enjoyed it. I was particularly impressed that the opening sequence described the historic relationship between Iran and the United States in detail, giving context to the hostility that led to the capture of the embassy and the imprisonment of the hostages. Those who were around at the time will remember the apparent impotence of the Carter administration, and the impact of the crisis on his prospects for re-election; for Middle East experts, of course, the 1953 coup orchestrated by the CIA had already set the pattern for US involvement in the region for seventy years. After that opening sequence, the narrative of the film is very one-sided, with frothing Iranians vs innocent Westerners, but credit where it’s due – this political context was crucially missing from the Vietnam films I’ve watched in this sequence, and from The Hurt Locker.

The filmography is particularly good, with hand-held cameras among the crowd storming the embassy bringing it into focus, and the Hollywood, Washington and Tehran locations convincingly depicted. The music is suitable and not oppressive – in the hands of another director we’d have had dramatic chords all the way through to tell us what to feel.

A relatively small element of the film, but I was very struck by the story’s very cynical take on Hollywood, especially after last year’s dewey-eyed The Artist, which also featured John Goodman. The parallel between the make-believe world of Movieland and the deception of espionage is well drawn, and also Arkin and Goodman play the Hollywood scenes for just the right amount of laughs to offset the serious subject matter of the rest of the story.

Chambers: [after hearing plan to exfiltrate the house guests] So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot…
Mendez: Yeah.
Chambers: …without actually doing anything?
Mendez: No.
Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

The film was enjoyable, but the erasure is so shocking that I am bumping it way way down my list to eighth last, just above All The King’s Men and below Forrest Gump.

I also read the original Wired article by Joshua Bearman which inspired the film (paywalled) and Mendez’ memoir Argo. The third paragraph of the Wired article is:

At first, the Lijeks hoped the consulate building where they worked would escape notice. Because of recent renovations, the ground floor was mostly empty. Perhaps no one would suspect that 12 Americans and a few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants were upstairs. The group included consular officer Joseph Stafford, his assistant and wife, Kathleen, and Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa department.

It tells much the same story as film and book, with maybe a little more emphasis on the experience of the fugitive diplomats.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the grandly titled Argo: How the Cia and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio is:

From the beginning, the Carter administration faced a number of challenges. When Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council threw their support behind the takeover, there was basically nobody for the U.S. government to negotiate with. Carter tried sending two emissaries, but Khomeini refused to allow them to even enter the country. With overt diplomacy off the table, Carter then turned to his military planners, who gave him a similarly bleak assessment. If the United States were to launch a retaliatory strike, the Iranians might execute the hostages. The chance of rescue also seemed remote. Geographically, Iran was extremely isolated and the U.S. embassy compound was located in the heart of the capital city. It appeared there would be no way to get the rescuers in and back out without the Iranians knowing.

Strictly speaking, the film was based on the relevant parts of Mendez’ earlier memoir, Master of Disguise, which were then extracted, expanded and updated as the book Argo to capitalise on the film. This updating was not complete. John Chambers’ identity is concealed behind a pseudonym in the book, even though the film uses his real name and anyway he had been dead since 2001, so it hardly mattered by 2012.

But it’s a satisfying read, if obviously partisan. The book is clear about the fact that the protagonist (played by a white actor in the film) is from a Hispanic background, even if he doesn’t choose to identify in that way; that one of the fugitive diplomats was Asian-American (also played by a white actor in the film); that one of the key people on the Canadian side was a black woman (erased entirely from the film); that the senior US official who authorised the plan was a woman (erased entirely from the film); that the protagonist had a stable marriage with two sons and a daughter (rather than the broken relationship and one son portrayed in the film) and that the last-minute hitches depicted in the film are entirely fictional.

The book also gives useful context about Mendez’ previous experience of disguise and exfiltration, including various capers in Iran itself, in other Middle Eastern countries and in south-east Asia. He is frank about the shortcomings of the USA’s governmental wiring diagram and comments approvingly that the Canadians with a lighter government structure were able to make things happen much more quickly than the Americans. And even without the fictional last-minute threats to the success of the mission, the truth is quite dramatic enough. You can get it here.

Next up: that year’s SFWA Bradbury winner, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)