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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

17 April

John McCarthy kidnapped, 1986

On this day in 1986, the British journalist John McCarthy was taken hostage in Lebanon. Like most of the hostages taken during the so-called Lebanon hostage crisis, which continued from 1982 to 1992, McCarthy was chosen not because of any particular political affiliation but because of the country he came from and because, as a journalist, he was easy to target. Aged 29 when it happened, he was working for WTN news when he was grabbed by Islamic Jihad, and spent the next five and a half years locked up. Every time the location of his incarceration was changed, McCarthy would be wrapped in parcel tape, head to toe, like some mummy, and slid into drawers below a lorry. In the ten year crisis 96 people were kidnapped and treated similarly to McCarthy. Some died, some escaped or were rescued, McCarthy spent much of his time sharing a cell with fellow hostage Brian Keenan, who had been taken six days before him. Keenan was released in August 1990, a year before McCarthy.

Argo (2012, dir: Ben Affleck)

At the height of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the CIA came up with a brilliant mad plan – to try and get the hostages out by using a fake movie as a cover. Movie people are rare beasts, they work to their own inscrutable logic, they operate at odd times of day, go to places other people don’t go. Ergo (if not argo) they are the ideal cover for a team of “extractors”. Argo tells that story, only lightly fictionalised, breaking the events down into three distinct fields of action. Back in Hollywood we have John Goodman and Alan Arkin, a pair of old Hollywood salts being seconded as the front for the operation and taking it all very seriously – “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” says Arkin’s Lester Siegel, a wiseass cigar-chomper of the old school whose Star Wars-alike film, Argo, is the stealth cloak under which the CIA will operate. Which takes us to the extractors themselves, led by Ben Affleck, edging his way into the “quiet dignity” area that George Clooney has a virtual lock on (Clooney is the film’s producer), hirsute in a 1970s way that’s also very now, playing the guy who is going to get the hostages out by disguising them as location scouts for the imaginary film. And then there’s the hostages, fearful, and the other occupants of the embassy – some of whom look like good guys but are bad guys, and vice versa.

How things play out is what the film is about, of course, whether they will or won’t succeed. But this three-way structure – fun at home, fear abroad and Affleck as the fixer go-between – is why it works so entertainingly. We get jokes, we get thrills and we get plenty of that procedural stuff that movies do so well.

There are other things going on too. For a start there’s the rewriting of history – President Carter’s big failure turned into something less ignominious. There’s the fact that this is a movie about movie-making, particularly Hollywood movie-making, when Hollywood and by extension the US was still the pre-eminent force.

There is intelligence too, from Affleck the director, dropping in shots of women in burkhas eating Kentucky Fried Chicken to remind us that the world isn’t black and white, we’re all more similar than we sometimes let on, but that situations can develop where black and white are really the only two choices on the table. Where Affleck really shows his mettle (and betrays that he’s obviously been watching the Bourne films) is in his choreographing of the actual operation to get the hostages out, which is constructed like a heist movie. Piling tension on tension and pulling so many whoops-nearlys, his film nearly tips over into parody. And over the end credits Affleck flashes up photos of the people actually involved – how closely Affleck and co resemble them. What a tense, polished thriller this is.

Why Watch?

  • For Alan Arkin – again stealing the movie
  • For the support turns by Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Scoot McNairy
  • Because truth is stranger than fiction
  • Because Affleck’s third movie as a director makes it three out of three

Argo – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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