Talking Pictures

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Posted by keith1942 on March 26, 2013


I went to see this film after it won the Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Achievement in Editing and Best Picture, Partly I was curious to see what led to the awards. I was still uncertain at the end: it is a well-made genre movie but not I thought outstanding. Did the Academy choose it because they like Ben Affleck: because it makes Yanks feel good: because it features Hollywood itself: possibly all three.

The basic plot follows the rescue of a group of six staff at the US Embassy in Teheran who manage to escape being taken as hostages by the Iranian revolutionaries in November 1979. They take refuge in the house of the Canadian Ambassador After much debate a CIA rescue is organised by pretending to visit Iran to scout locations for a Hollywood science fiction film. The six are then bought out disguised as members of the production.

The producer George Clooney and the director Ben Affleck are both Hollywood liberals. So the film avoids the stereotypical treatment of Iran common in the US media. The film opens with a sequence of actual television and film footage with titles that expose the manipulations by the US and the UK in toppling a democratically elected government and installing the Shah Reza Khan Pahlavi. His brutal dictatorship is also clearly identified. However, the Sight & Sound review exaggerate when it suggest a ‘refusal to paint the Iranian side as cartoon villains or fathomless Islamic other.’ After the initial history study the film is presented from the side of the US. Iranians are the other, familiar from genre films just like Indians in most westerns or Vietnamese in war movies. The one sympathetic Iranian [apparently an invention] is the housekeeper in the home of the Canadian Ambassador, where the six staffers are hidden. At the end of the film, as the staff return to the USA, the Ambassador and his wife entrain from Iran; she is seen crossing the border into Iraq.

Given her likely fate in 1980 or since this might be ironic, but the style of the brief sequence suggests not. However the film does offer both irony and satire, and is often extremely witty. In particular the scenes where baffled White House and CIA staff attempt to come up with ideas for rescues are very funny. There are also some delightful digs at the Hollywood industry and its cheaper, sleazier aspects. And the famous Hollywood sign is dilapidated and in partial ruins [in fact it had been repaired in 1978].

However, the rescue sequence in Teheran is pretty serious and played for tension and suspense.  Here the genre takes over as Mendez and his ‘film crew’ face questions and orders barked out in untranslated Farsi. This is also the point of the film at which the opposition is treated most stereotypically, “predator prey aspect”.. They are always one move behind the CIA rescue. There is a final armed pursuit of the plane down the runway, which looks exaggerated and seems unnecessary. During this sequence the fake production designer gives two of the guards film artwork. They examine them like ‘excited children’. This is part of the representation that shows Iranians as disorganised and technologically incompetent: another thriller convention.

The film also offers a genre hero, Ben Affleck as CIA man Tony Mendez. We first see him waking in bed to answer a night time call from the agency. And we soon note that he both family and alcohol problems. But of course he delivers: in fact at the climax of the rescue he disobeys orders to pursue the rescue of these ‘innocent’ embassy staff. Affleck commented that he played the part to re-create the invisibility of the actual Mendez, “a grey little man.” In fact he seemed to me to come across as a typical forthright and very noticeable hero.

The film ends with titles that fill in the historical record and then present us with Jimmy Carter [ex-President] recalling the operation and rejoicing that all the hostages came home. What it fails to highlight is that the Iranians only released the 52 staff in the embassy on the day his successor was inaugurated. And the farce of the rescue helicopters crashing in the Iranian desert is only there as a minor plot item. Even Otto  {Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, 1988] would find it difficult to term the actual resolution ‘a draw’.

The film is extremely well done, and the suspense climax is well shot. The bringing together of archive footage and recreation is fairly good as well, though the CGI is fairly obvious. One query, even in 1980 would Tony [Affleck] being able to light up a cigarette on a Swissair plane?

Quotes from an interview with Ben Affleck on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme.



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