freedom, captivity and responsibility
In November 1979 a mob of revolutionary Iranians stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, took over 50 hostages and began the 444 days of captivity we all remember. But six embassy workers escaped that day and found shelter in the Canadian Ambassador’s home. Argo tells the now-declassified, true-life tale of how the USA brought them home.
After winning the screenwriter’s in 1997 Oscar for Good Will Hunting, a film in which he also acted, Ben Affleck’s career seemed to plumb the depths. He made some poor choices as an actor (consider Bounce and Gigli). But his stock has climbed since he got behind the camera. He has made crackerjack selections as a director. His debut, Gone Baby Gone, was one of the best films of 2007. The Town continued his run of top-flight films. And now, he is once more at the top of his game with Argo. This compelling political thriller features terrific actors, engaging script and excellent cinematography that puts the viewer slap bang in the middle of the crisis. Indeed, despite being snubbed by the Academy and not being nominated as director, Affleck won his second Oscar, this time for Best Picture (Affleck was producer, as well as director and lead actor). And he was gracious in his acceptance speech: “You can’t hold grudges — it’s hard, but you can’t hold grudges.”
The film opens with a short storyboard history of Iran, from biblical times to the post-Shah Iranian Revolution, followed by a tense set-up with a wild mob taking over the embassy. From there the tension never lets up. But Affleck counters the tension with well-placed humor, mostly from John Goodman and Alan Arkin and a pacing that is pitch-perfect.
After 66 days with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), daily facing the possibility of discovery and death, the Canadians want the Americans gone. Back in Washington, various agencies run through plans to get them out. But CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with the “best of the bad ideas”: to pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a film. He would be a producer, while the six would be his crew. He would fly in alone and fly out with them. Risky, certainly. Possible, yes.
With the plan approved, Mendez needs to be convincing. And he turns to old pal John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood make-up artist. Chambers, in turn, brings producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) into the mix. But to create a plausible backstory, they need a script, a poster, an office, and media hype. They come up with Argo, a sci-fi film.
The scenes with Goodman and Arkin, introducing Mendez to the fakeries of Hollywood are hilarious. They provide excellent counterpoint to the reality of the hostages. But it also shows how even these cynics get behind the cause and the nation’s need.
One scene in particular stands out early in the film. Affleck weaves three sets of speakers together into one montage. We see President Carter speaking on TV about the hostages. Another shot shows a female revolutionary in Iran declaiming the evils of America. And back home in Hollywood, Siegel has a group of actors reading the script of Argo in a press event. This surreal scene brings into focus the reality of the fictional film’s purpose.
Once Mendez gets to Iran and meets the six, he finds them fearful and frustrated. Trapped in the Canadian’s home, their fear of being captured while trying to flee has eclipsed their desire to escape. Moreover, their lack of trust in Mendez’ plan complicates matters and forces some self-disclosure. He must open up to them and make himself vulnerable before they will put their trust in him.
This brings to mind a biblical parallel. Before we can trust Jesus, he had to make himself vulnerable. He did this by giving up his position in the safe country of heaven, becoming like us, even one of us when he took on human form (Phil. 2:6-8) living in the dangerous kingdom of darkness (Col. 1:13). Through his sacrifice on the cross, he has enabled our rescue. To effect this rescue, though, requires our trust and our faith: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5-6).
This focus on fear and faith, captivity and freedom, has been explored by Stacey Tuttle in her review for Shepherd Project. In that review she compares (almost equates) the CIA to Christianity and explains how our jobs or vocations are cover stories for our real job of freeing those held captive by Satan. She comments:
For most of us, at least most of us in America, we don’t have to risk our lives to help bring freedom to the captives. We may have to risk our coolness, or some level of comfort…in fact, I would be willing to say God will nearly always ask us to risk something for Him. He does, after all, tell us things like, “pick up your cross” and “deny yourself” and “die to self” and “count the costs” as we follow Him.
Back in Iran, when Mendez’s CIA boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) tells Mendez that the CIA has called the plan off, the crisis hits deep and rocks Mendez. Having put his life on the line for the six Americans, he says, “We are responsible for these people.”
Aside from captivity and freedom, responsibility is the other key theme. Mendez realized the responsibility of the American government for the situation and his own part in it. These six had worked hard for the government and deserved more than to be discarded. They needed him. He was responsible for their escape.
How about us? Who are we responsible for? Who is dependent on us? Obviously, our family members, spouses and kids. But what about friends, church members, and co-workers? How about the strangers we encounter along the path of our life? How does our Christian faith inform us in this regard?
Certainly, the apostle Paul tells us we should provide for our families first (1 Tim. 5:8). There lies our primary responsibility. But John commands us to “love one another” (Jn. 13:34). Love requires responsibility. So, in a very real sense, we are responsible for others in the family of Christ. And Matthew’s command, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations“ (Matt. 28:19), lays on us a responsibility for others outside of the family of Christ.
So, like Mendez, not only must we look at our lives as an opportunity to help others find freedom from sin’s captivity (Col. 1:13), but we must we accept the responsibility for others. We can accept this responsibility with grace, and demonstrate it with love: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13). Jesus laid down his life for us (1 Jn. 3:16). We must face the question he asks us, ““Will you really lay down your life for me?” (Jn. 13:38)
Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs
Martin works as a manager in the high tech industry. He leads a monthly film review group at Mosaic Church in Portland, Oregon. He writes film responses from a biblical perspective on his blog: www.mosaicmovieconnectgroup.blogspot.com