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It's red state/blue state season, in which your in-laws become idiots, you stop talking to your neighbors and Twitter turns into a mirrored dungeon of smarmy invective. Everyone, look. The formula for healing is simple. Shut up and go see "Argo," then adjourn for beers.
Ben Affleck's third directorial effort might be his best, even if it does also star Ben Affleck. He plays Tony Mendez, a real person who worked for the CIA. In 1979, when Iranian demonstrators overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, nearly all the staffers there were taken hostage. "Argo" follows the six Americans who slipped out and took refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house, prompting Mendez to devise a way to slip them out of the country before they were captured and subjected to untold unpleasantries.
Mendez's scheme, actually attempted in early 1980, was to pose as a Canadian filmmaker scouting locations to shoot a science fiction flick and to shepherd the six Americans out on Canadian passports as members of his ersatz crew. The results might constitute the most accessible true-life CIA movie ever, and one of the most pleasing. The only piece of jargon you need to know might be "exfil," short for exfiltration (infiltration's ejector-seat sibling). Otherwise, it's all middlebrow candy.
Even if Affleck's Mendez evinces little of the chimerical charisma it no doubt takes to waltz into hostile countries and talk your way out through the front door, the supporting cast is a hoot. Bryan Cranston, as a CIA middle manager, is brusquely hilarious. John Goodman as the Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, who helped build the veneer of credibility the fake movie project "Argo" needed to appear real, is likewise fantastic, as is Alan Arkin as his producer counterpart. Together they constitute some comic relief for the dark, taut Tehran side of the tale, all cabin fever and near-captures.
Now, for anyone enthralled more by facts than by manufactured movie drama, you'll have to bear the cinematic equivalent of MSG that Affleck sprinkles throughout. In real life, the airport episode went appreciably more smoothly than "Argo" depicts. For all that Arkin's character brings to the film — his performance has the quick punch of his Oscar-winning "Little Miss Sunshine" turn — he was invented by screenwriter Chris Terrio, who adapted the 2007 Wired article in which Joshuah Bearman broke the (recently declassified) story of the original operation.
And while the news media in 1980 hailed the Canadians' efforts in the caper (the CIA does tend to deflect credit for its projects, after all) the operational role that Canadians played was far larger than "Argo" suggests. For the purposes of your two hours at the cinema, that's fine; the final narrative is already full, and Canada comes out looking plenty heroic. I watched "Argo" in a theater in British Columbia, and when the end credits rolled, the audience applauded. It was easy to see why. The movie was all kinds of entertaining, and warmly dual-nation patriotic.
Heck, even the Iranians are portrayed respectably. Their fury over American support of Shaw Mohammad Reza comes across as ultimately justified. This America of ours, she is not perfect. Nor is "Argo." But if you can tolerate the former, you'll probably dig the latter.