CINEMA: The Great Escape

NEW YORKER: The new Ben Affleck movie, “Argo,” begins in November, 1979, with the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran. A crowd breaks into the compound, taking more than fifty Americans hostage. Six escape through the back of the building and take refuge in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador. How can they be spirited out of the country, or, as the jargon puts it, exfiltrated? Back in Washington, the task falls to a C.I.A. staffer named Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), from the Office of Technical Services. Various plans have been mooted, the most credible being that the hostages could make it to the border, hundreds of miles away, on bikes. Mendez, however, has an even better idea. Well, not a better one, but a more ridiculous one: how about making a movie? Enter John Chambers (John Goodman), a prosthetics guru whose work on simian features, for “Planet of the Apes,” earned him an Academy Award, in 1969, and whose talents the Agency has called on in the past. Mendez goes to Hollywood and asks Chambers to devise a nonexistent film: find a script that requires a Middle Eastern setting, and build up a simulacrum of a genuine production. Posters, storyboards, costumes, read-throughs, buzz in the trade papers: everything will help. Mendez, posing as an associate producer, will fly to Iran, issue false identities to the six Americans, claim that they are scouting locations for a Canadian science-fiction movie, and then fly them out. Four things should be said about this pipe dream. One, it went ahead; two, it worked; three, it wasn’t declassified until 1997; and four, it makes for a good movie, and further proof that we were wrong about Ben Affleck. Few of us, watching “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor,” could see a way out, or back, for an actor so utterly at the mercy of his own jawline. MORE