Ben Affleck, Argo and a chilling portrait of suspicion and vengeance in post-revolutionary Tehran

There are no shortage of oddities in this Oscar-nominated movie, but our Middle East Correspondent is moved by a brilliant depiction of Iran after the 1979 upheaval

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In the months that followed the 1979 Iranian Revolution, I would approach the departure gate at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport with fear. I had nothing to be frightened of; I was a bona fide newspaper journalist travelling in and out of Tehran. But the questions from the Iranian security goons at the airport were so threatening, so insinuating, so heavy with suspicion, you realised, if they didn’t like you, innocence would not suffice. “Why did you write that the Shah was America’s policeman in the Gulf when he tortured so many Iranians?”

They had already prowled through my bag, read copies of my telexed dispatches. I was using the word “policeman” ironically. “Why did you stay two weeks longer than your original visa?” I had obtained a legal extension from the foreign ministry. “Why did you visit Bandar Abbas when you knew there were sensitive installations in the region? Why have you left your camera behind?”

In Ben Affleck’s Oscar-nominated movie Argo, the goons at the airport are just as sinister, the questions even more penetrating, the suspicions equally real. After all, they are talking to a six-strong Canadian film crew supposedly preparing to shoot a sci-fi movie in Iran – but the six are in fact US diplomats who escaped the takeover of the American embassy after the revolution. Their 52 colleagues were held hostage for 444 days. Now the still undetected six are trying to escape. Their boarding cards are in their hands. But the Pasdaran guys don’t like the look of them. Why would Canadians want to make a sci-fi movie in Iran? Why did they only stay two days in the Islamic Republic? Why are their original, two-day-old landing cards missing? As we all know, there were no landing cards for the six. They were all hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence.

Oddities

But for pedants like me, I’m worried about the oddities. I don’t remember the Pasdaran having computers at Mehrabad Airport at the time. Nor do I remember electronic boarding cards. In 1979 Iran, we handed in handwritten airline tickets, each transit flight coupon a carbon imprint of the original handwriting.

But the real problem in the film for us factoid-lovers is that there was in fact no hassle at Mehrabad Airport for the six disguised diplomats and the CIA man accompanying them. The Iranians painstakingly sticking back together the shredded embassy files – as they indeed did – never discovered the identities of the six diplomats, as they do in the film. Nor did armed Pasdaran smash their way on to the airport apron and vainly pursue the fugitives’ Swissair flight down the runway with a truck-load of gunmen.

Even more important, the British embassy in Tehran did not turn the six away when they originally left their own embassy, as the film suggests; and the Canadians played a far more important role in freeing the Americans than the CIA. But as usual, the Yanks get most of the credit – as they did for winning the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War… well, we’ll leave at that.

Tony Mendez – who was part- Mexican but, played by Ben Affleck, you’d never guess it – is the hero and wins the CIA’s top medal for covert operations which can never be revealed. He gets the medal and then gets to hand it back again. The Iranians must love the hidden messages in Argo. But I have to admit some sympathy for Affleck, the director as well as the star. He played one of the heroes in the semi-fictional version of Pearl Harbor, which made a mint after the 9/11 attacks as a romanticised account of the 1941 Japanese assault on the US Navy. And we must remember that the 1970 Hollywood version of Pearl Harbour, Tora! Tora! Tora!, did faithfully follow every historical fact of the attack. It bombed at the cinema. When audiences go to the cinema, they want cinema – not history.

Veracity

While Argo deviates from the facts of the diplomats’ escape, it does – chillingly and with enormous veracity – capture the mood of suspicion and savage vengeance in post-revolutionary Tehran. Suspected members of the former regime were shot down in prison yards, pleading with pathetic smiles and great fear with the men who were about to murder them. Men were executed in the streets of Iran, hanging from cranes – although the original executions were carried out in prison and crane hangings were normally provided for “convicted” drug smugglers.

But the underlying neurosis of an intelligent people ruled by a barbaric government is all too realistically sustained. The sinister approach of the Iranian intelligence officer to the female Iranian housekeeper at the Canadian embassy, and his constant reassurance that he “knows” she is faithful to her Iranian brothers and sisters, precisely captures the polluting atmosphere of loyalty and terror which the Iranian revolution was designed to provoke. She is the real star of the movie.

At the very end, we see her, dust-covered and fearful, crossing the border into Iraq as a refugee – to the Iraq of Saddam, for heaven’s sakes – in order to flee her homeland and her persecutors. No first-class Swissair boarding cards for her. But it’s a cracker of a film which – along with Rendition and bits of Munich – pushes the reality of the Middle East a little bit nearer to the souls of cinema-goers.

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