Hasslein Blog: How Planet of the Apes Helped to Quell the Iranian Hostage Crisis


Hasslein Blog

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How Planet of the Apes Helped to Quell the Iranian Hostage Crisis

by Rich Handley

I watch a lot of films, but I tend to form opinions about actors and directors that limit my viewing habits. For example, I am not likely to watch another Adam Sandler film any time soon, as I've seen enough over the years to realize there are far more Jack and Jills than Wedding Singers on his résumé. Still, every now and then, an actor will turn in a performance that surprises me, making me reevaluate whether I should start paying more attention to that person's career.

As of today, that is true for Ben Affleck.

Take THAT, Matt Damon.

Previously, I didn't necessarily consider Affleck a bad actor, per se, nor did I actively dislike his films. I enjoyed Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting and Shakespeare in Love, for instance. But my appreciation of those stories hadn't been due to Affleck's involvement—more often, it was despite it, as I tend to find his performances bland. Much of his other work (Armageddon, Reindeer Games, Pearl Harbor, The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil, Gigli and Jersey Girl) has left me thinking "meh," both in regard to the films and his acting. And I know I'm not alone in this view, as I've seen many critics make the same observation.

One exception was Hollywoodland, the biopic in which he did a remarkable job of highlighting Superman actor George Reeves' troubled life and suspicious death. But I'd always considered that to be a diamond in the rough—a rare shining moment among two decades of mostly continuous dullness.

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... drunk Superman's package.

That is, until today. You see, I've just returned from viewing his latest work, Argo, which he both directed and starred in. And I'm starting to change my mind.

First, a little history lesson: Anyone born in or before, say, 1970 should well remember the Iranian hostage crisis, in which Islamist extremists held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days, from November 1979 until January 1981, to support the Iranian Revolution and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and to protest the United States' granting of asylum to exiled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Argo roughly follows the timeline of those events—but with a twist: Rather than documenting U.S. efforts to free the hostages from captivity, the film revolves around a secondary mission to rescue six individuals who escaped the embassy but had no way to get out of the country, and were being protected in the home of Canadian businessman Kenneth D. Taylor, at the time Canada's ambassador to Iran.

Real-life hostages

Affleck's role is that of Tony Mendez, a CIA technical operations officer specializing in covert and clandestine operations. Assigned to free the six hiding diplomats, Mendez formulated a plot so absurd that, if it hadn't actually occurred in the real world, would likely be deemed non-believable by critics and audiences alike. His plan, sanctioned by President Jimmy Carter, was to make his way to Taylor's home in Iran and escort the six back to the United States, posing as, of all things, a Canadian film crew. The catch: For the ruse to work, he had to be extremely convincing in case he and his charges were questioned at any point along the way, lest they be captured, tortured and possibly executed. It wasn't enough to claim to be making a movie—the world had to believe they were actually doing so, since the Iranian investigators were keen and intelligent.

It's at this point that the film (and history) enters the realm of surreality. In order to ensure that his cover story would withstand scrutiny, Mendez enlisted aid from legendary make-up artist John Chambers (portrayed by John Goodman), well known for his work on Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The Munsters, Lost in Space, Night Gallery and, most significantly, the classic Planet of the Apes films. (Whenever you see the iconic facial masks used for Cornelius, Zira, Zaius and other apes, you're viewing Chambers' genius.)

John Chambers and simian pal.

Chambers, in turn, introduced Mendez to film producer Lester Siegel (played by Alan Arkin), and together, the three men spread buzz around Hollywood that a new science fiction film was in the works called Argo, based on an actual screenplay being shopped around in those days, considered a rip-off of the recently released Star Wars. The script chosen for the rescue mission was rather ironic; in ancient Greek mythology, Argo was the name of a seagoing vessel on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed during their voyage to retrieve the Golden Fleece. The film references this, in fact, by having someone ask Siegel if that's what his sci-fi movie would be about, leading to Siegel's hilarious and acerbic response, "Argo fuck yourself." (The gag works much better spoken than in print.)

But it didn't end there. Costumes and alien masks were actually designed, working actors were brought in to perform a live read-through of the script for the media to record, and Argo was announced as an upcoming blockbuster, with Chambers heading up the makeup team. Even Variety magazine covered the production. All of this, the trio hoped, would lend credibility to Mendez's cover story, in sort of a reverse of Wag the Dog.

Left to right: Goodman, Arkin, Affleck

If this all sounds a bit ridiculous, keep something in mind: The film is based on what really happened thirty years ago, which has since been declassified by the government. Reality truly is stranger than fiction.

As noted above, I was impressed by Affleck's performance. The actor's subdued approach to the role—which, in the past, has left me shrugging—this time seemed entirely appropriate. I've read reviews complaining about Affleck casting himself in the role, since the actual Tony Mendez is Latino. I can understand the frustration, as there are many talented Latino actors who would have been perfect (and more historically accurate) for the job. In fact, I admittedly did wonder why someone of Affleck's ethnicity would be cast as a guy named Mendez. But I eminently enjoyed him in the role, nonetheless, and can separate the man from the character since Argo is billed as only being based on a true story.

Mendez (left) and his whitewashed doppelgänger

(On a side note, the Planet of the Apes films featured two main characters named Mendez—neither of whom was portrayed by a Latino actor. So perhaps it's appropriate, given Chambers' importance to the plot, that the same is true for Argo.)

Mendez I and Mendez XXVI

As for Chambers, John Goodman was an inspired piece of casting. Goodman presents the makeup legend as a talented and jovial man with a snarky sense of humor and a fondness for donuts, well aware of how despicable the film-making industry can be, and willing to perpetrate a deception in order to save lives. If the movie is even half correct in how it portrays Chambers (despite critical acclaim, Argo has come under some criticism for taking liberties with historical events), then I wish I'd been able to meet him prior to his death in 2001. He seems like he was as remarkable as his creations.

But by far, the casting coup is Alan Arkin, who brings a wonderful irreverence to his portrayal of Siegel (a composite of four real-world movie producers) that reminds me of Carl Reiner's character, Saul Bloom, in George Clooney's Oceans Eleven trilogy—which may not be coincidental, since Clooney was one of Argo's producers. Arkin steals every scene he's in, and the movie is greater because of it. After seeing Argo, you'll be looking for the perfect opportunity to tell someone, "Argo fuck yourself." I guarantee it.

Carl Reiner as Lester Siegel's twin brother, Saul Bloom

It's embarrassing to admit this, but Argo was largely off my radar until today. I'm not sure how that's possible, given that I'm a lifelong Planet of the Apes aficionado and have written two books about the franchise—I should have been eagerly awaiting this film's release. The thing is, Chambers' involvement in the plot was something I'd completely forgotten about, so when Tony Mendez began watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on his small 1970s television, thereby leading to his conceiving the above-noted rescue plan, it took me off-guard, and I found myself grinning like an idiot, wondering, "Wait, what?? How did I not know this would be in the film?"

Even more amusing was a camera pan near the end, showing a child's bedroom shelf, containing numerous classic toys from that era, including the Millennium Falcon, a TIE Fighter and numerous action figures from Kenner's Star Wars line; MEGO's poseable Planet of the Apes and Star Trek figures; characters from Battlestar Galactica; and more. (Earlier in the film, actors also showed up wearing Wookiee and Cylon costumes.) I chuckled appreciatively, as I actually owned almost every single toy on that shelf when I was a child (and several of them as an adult).

My childhood

For science fiction fans, Argo is more than just an historical drama about the Iranian hostage crisis—it's a fun and nostalgic geek trip down memory lane. I would not have expected such a juxtaposition, given the movie's serious, political subject matter. And yet, somehow, it works. Herein, I'll no longer overlook a film just because of Affleck's involvement, and I may even track down his 2010 directorial effort The Town, to see if I enjoy that one as well.

If you're debating whether or not to view his latest work, here's my advice: Argo fucking see it.

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