I just came back from watching Argo, and there’s a nail-biter of a scene when Iranian guards hold Tony Mendez and six American embassy officials for passport issues while another contingent of Revolutionary Guards, having uncovered their true identities, race to apprehend them. One official, Joe Stafford (played by Scoot McNairy) steps up and uses the fluent Farsi he needs for his job as Consular Officer. Hours earlier he had been the sole remaining skeptic about the scheme hatched by CIA exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, to get him and his colleagues out of Iran.
Only, the scene never occurred. But, I wish I could show it to ESL students. It’s a dramatic example of why learning how to talk to people in a foreign language, and not just imitating noises from tapes or taking exams and also all under duress, is what makes foreign language study important. Along with many other fictional aspects of this fact-based thriller, the dramatic elements outweigh the pitfalls of historical inaccuracy.
Argo is a caper movie, wrapped in a satire, and all lovingly clothed in a human interest story. Based mostly on the “Canadian Caper”, Ben Affleck and a varied cast of veteran actors, like John Goodman and Alan Arkin, and up-and-coming performers, lands a story the ending of which everyone already knows. The fictional details are what keeps the tension rising. If success is measured by how fast I wanted to run to the internet, to fact-check it, I loved the movie, But, it is a movie only, or, as Stanley Fish concludes, a “confection”.
I ate up the nostalgia. The music, the Star Wars figurines, The Battle for the Planet of the Apes clip, the yellow ribbons, all evoked a not-too distant past right at the horizon of my teenage memories. The images of big-framed glasses, moustaches, and ancient technology – pneumatic tubes and dial telephones – set an odd tone, of decline and uncertainty. Although the set production took care to treat Iran and Iranians with respect, there is the glaring fact, that Ben Affleck is not Hispanic, and the real Mendez is. It’s a movie, yes, but perhaps the tale of how Mendez became a white guy is just as dramatic as how the Canadian Caper became a movie.
As the credits roll, former President Carter testifies to his all-too-human regret about not taking credit for the successful operation, all the while avoiding mention of the failed operation he did have to own. I also thought of all the dictators who were not overthrown by their own people, or all the odious hijinks the CIA pulled for decades. Run to the internet, to fact-check, if you really enjoyed Affleck’s caper before you, the viewer, become the dupe.