Faith & Film: Argo

I want to begin by explaining my absence for a few months. First of all, there have been very few movies out that I’ve wanted to see. An exception was “Hope Springs,” with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a 60-ish couple who go away to see a therapist in order to put some spark back into their lifeless marriage. It’s a thoughtful affirmation of marriage, long after the kids have grown and moved out of the house. It’s no longer in theaters, but should show up on DVD and other outlets in a couple of months, and is certainly worth a look.

Secondly, I have been in a transition to a new ministry in a new city, leaving parish ministry in Memphis for ministry in our provincial office in New Orleans. The move has taken a great deal of time and energy. I am getting settled in my new surroundings, and it is fall, traditionally the best season of the year for movies.

“Argo,” my first movie of the fall season, is a great success. It’s a suspenseful, and at times surprisingly funny, movie that tells an previously unknown story behind a historical event. The opening scenes effectively use documentary footage of the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979, mixed with dramatic scenes. Anyone old enough to remember the Iran hostage crisis will be riveted by Argo’s opening. At the same time, this sequence has an immediacy about it, in the wake of the recent attack on the American embassy in Libya.

When the embassy in Tehran was stormed, six Americans escaped. They hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador for months. The CIA became aware of their hiding place. The CIA knew these diplomats were vulnerable and somehow had to be brought to safety. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed the movie) devises a far-fetched plan involving the making of a science fiction movie in Iran. Tony goes to Hollywood, and with the help of a make-up artist (John Goodman) and producer (the great Alan Arkin,) begin pre-production on a bogus science fiction movie named “Argo.” A script is written. Auditions are held. Costumes are designed. Yet, no one has any intention of actually making the movie. Mendez realizes that every effort to make the fake movie look like an actual project is necessary if the plan to rescue the hostages has any chance of success.

It’s such an outrageous idea that it actually works. The “Argo” project gets a green light from Washington. Tony gets a Canadian passport for himself, along with six other Canadian passports for the Americans in hiding. Tony flies to Tehran where he meets with an Iranian agent, telling him he has a crew with him to begin scouting locations for “Argo.” Tony meets the six Americans, whom he briefs on their fake roles in the making of “Argo” (director, writer, photographer, production designer.) After an extensive briefing, Tony and the six go into the city with an Iranian guide, scouting locations. After their location scouting, Tony must get the Americans with their fake passports, on a flight out of the country. These scenes are incredibly suspenseful. One wrong word or gesture from anyone would mean the end for all.

Affleck deserves an Oscar nomination for his direction. “Argo” is often suspenseful, but also has moments of humor. There’s also the human drama as the hostages wonder if they will ever make it out of the country alive. Affleck and his crew also have a great eye for period detail. The big hair and eyeglasses, popular 30 years ago, are everywhere.

Not to sound prudish, but I can’t help wondering if all the profanity in “Argo” was really necessary. Otherwise, it’s a solid, engrossing movie from start to finish. Don’t leave before the credits, in which you can see the real people played by the actors, and hear a brief commentary from Jimmy Carter.

Let the Oscar race begin.

Tom Condon, OP