Unlikely victory for controversial movie

Saturday February 16 2013

By EUGENE MBUGUA [email protected]

Last Sunday, Argo last Sunday took home the best film, best editing and best director award from the 66th British Academy Film Awards. The film, directed by Ben Affleck and produced by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Affleck, has seven nominations at the 85th academy awards later on this month, among them best picture and best adapted screenplay.

So what is this well performing movie all about, you ask?

Following public discontent regarding oppression, brutality corruption and extravagance, the people of Iran forced out their leader Mohammad Rezâ Shâh Pahlavî in 1979. Needing medical attention, the American government reluctantly allowed the Shah temporary asylum in the country for surgery. His stay was, however, prolonged after complications developed with his surgery.

The people of Iran, upset with the American government for its support of the Shah, took to the streets.

They demanded that the Shah be returned to Iran to face trial. The Shah continued to stay in the American hospital. On November 4, 1979, militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking scores of the embassy workers hostage.

Unknown to the militants, six of the embassy staff were able to escape. They sought shelter at the home of Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) the Canadian ambassador.

While the American government was still trying to draw up a rescue plan, the militants discover that the six were missing. Armed Iranian units begin conducting raids on different homes, arresting and killing anyone suspected to be harbouring the Americans. The American government had to act fast.

Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is called by the CIA for consultation. While watching the movie The planet of the Apes on TV, Tony gets the idea of creating a cover story that the six escapees were part of a Canadian film crew that was in Iran to scout locations for a sci-fi movie.

The CIA is skeptical about it but Tony convinces them that ‘‘it’s the best bad idea’’ they have. To make Argo, the fake movie, appear as real as possible, Tony has to enlist the help of actual Hollywood filmmakers.

The film’s win at the BAFTA awards drew some complaints from factions of the British media owing to misrepresentation of Britain’s role in the actual mission. Toby Young, writing for the Telegraph, expressed disappointment that the movie had won a British award despite having misleading information about Britain’s role in the actual mission.

In the film’s plot, the six escapees are turned away at all embassies including that of Britain. But as Toby young quotes in his article, this is false.

“It is not the truth that they were turned away from the British Embassy,” says Sir John Graham, Britain’s ambassador to Iran at the time. “My immediate reaction on hearing about this was one of outrage.”

Ben Affleck, while admitting this misrepresentation, defends his stand,  “I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair,” he says. “But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.”

Despite this, the film which has grossed close to $200 million (Sh17 billion) at the box office is predicted to take top prize at the Oscars to be held in about a week’s time. This will, perhaps, be helped by the fact that a few hundred film makers of the about 6,000 members that make up the BAFTA academy also sit on the Oscars academy.

Also, judging from previous wins, Hollywood loves to award films about itself. Films about acting or filmmaking like Shakespeare in Love in 1999, Chicago (Showbiz and Jazz Hands) in 2003 and The Artist last year have all taken top glory over differently themed films.