Sunday, January 20, 2013


With the boys off on a one-night camping trip with the Scouts, Dad decided to catch a few movies, as well as sneak off for a nice dinner (and ice cream, don't tell anyone). I don't get these opportunities often, so it was a nice diversion. I decided to spend some of it on the CIA Rehabilitation and Restoration of Respect Tour. Yes, I went to see Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. And I found both films pretty entertaining, with good acting and compelling stories, though not totally accurate. And my first thought, especially in the latter movie, is that there probably was a lot going on that they have not (and likely won't) reveal for many years, if ever, to protect individuals and the agency. But the essential stories seemed true. Furthermore, I hope people realize the very hard work, long hours, terror, stress, and effort a whole range of government officals and employees, from politicians to intelligence officers to foreign service officers to the military give to protect this country. They are only human, often make mistakes, may even fail, but they also carry off spectacular feats (among the thousands of lesser achievements every day) that are usually hidden from attention or praise. In the Iranian situation, embassy guards could have fought back with deadly force, killing hundreds and possibly sparking a war, but they held back and suffered a 444 day captivity. And many people came to the aid of Americans.

Argo, the story of how a CIA operative and specialist in secretly extracting individuals from countries (played by Ben Affleck, who also directed the movie) duped the Iranian authories and gained the freedom of six embassy personnel who escaped the initial takeover by the students. In some ways the early scenes struck a parallel with Bengahzi, where prepared agitators used the cloak of a street protest to gain access to a facility. I think they know the first inclination of American guards is NOT to shoot into crowds. This movie had a personal note, and interest, for me because I worked with about eight Iranians during the revolution and captivity, and I got many insights from them. I even risked my job standing up to a member who was verbally and racially abusing an Iranian employee (who, by the way, lived the rest of his life in the United States and is a contributing member of society). In fact, in an aside, I believe the vast majority of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East to this country have added to the diversity and strength of our nation, many sacrificed and offered their lives to defend us and have contributed mightily, especially Iranians who came here. Ok, let's get back to the movie. I have read about the escape, the creation of a dummy movie-productiuon company, and the film rightly applauds the contribution of the Canadians in hiding and protecting our citizens. The movie avoids a lot of saccharine and sappy aspects some films employ, and tried to be a straightfoward account, with levity being provided at the expense of Hollywood. Since the Academy nominated nine movies for Best Picture, I see how it made the list, but I thought Affleck was rather bland in the lead role (perhaps because he was expected to be, in which case he did a great job). But even in many places where I would have expected a higher measure of anxiety, I didn't feel it, at least to the extent I expected. Perhaps I expect too much. I thought the cast was good, and I loved the John Goodman/Alan Arkin parts (they could make a spinoff and just make a deliciously savage commentary on Hollywood). I loved Adrienne Barbeau's cameo. Although most people probably won't notice, but I thought the smaller roles of Iranians and crowd scenes were very well done, and quite believable, not over the top or exaggerated (such as when the bazari goes crazy when his picture is taken, which reflects the real fears and tumult ordinary Iranians were feeling). I know some Iranians will complain that the movie made some look silly or incompetent, but I thought the filmmakers tried to show just how smart and dedicated (even if fanatical) many revolutionaries were (and also the pain and violence experienced by the population as a whole). And sadly, I think most Iranians continue to suffer from fanatical oppression, and I hope one day they can shed their current clerical leadership. This movie sported a huge cast and must have been a nightmare for costumers and support staff, but I think they pulled it off. I enjoyed the film.

Zero Dark Thirty was a bit more troubling, though it was an exciting film. I thought Jessica Chastain and Jason Clark were very good (even as they glorified torture, which I oppose) as CIA operatives dedicated to destroying Al Qaida and killing its head, and the rest of the cast was good as well. I wondered a bit about the conservative outcry against the movie as a vehicle of adulation for Obama (which, frankly, I did not see). I was a bit surprised that (at least I can't recall hearing it) the SEAL team did not get more mention, because the movie seemed to indicate it was a CIA team. I bet CIA personnel were there, but it doesn't sinc with what I read in No Easy Day. I liked the fact that they showed the contributions of many Pakistanis (as well as Americans of Middle Eastern heritage) in helping kill Bin Laden. I think the film also correctly showed how smart, tenacious, and sneaky our terrorist oppoents can be (and maybe people will realize how difficult is the job to counter fanatics). What a gigantic and coordinated effort is needed to keep these jackals at bay. No doubt Americans will never know the sacrifices and effort made by thousands of public servants who have staved off attacks or killed and captured terrorists. Every terrorist attack is a failure of sorts, but I suspect many more potential disasters were avoided by good intelligence and timely interventions. Depending on the mood of the voters, I wouldn't be surprised if the Academy gives the Best Movie award. Possibly these two movies may cancel each other out and the award will go to a happier movie (though my vote goes to Lincoln). Many scenes are troubling, and I would highly encourage parents to heed the R rating.

As an aside, there will be some Americans who will feel superior and snigger at the Middle Eastern fanatics, but I say we have them too, in elements of the fanatical Christian fundametalists and Tea Party crackpots, and they are just a step away from becoming domestic terrorists, and that what keeps them from destroying this country is that they do not have the advantage of a homogenous (and often oppressed)population, but that we as a nation benefit from broad diversity of cultural heritages and political outlooks and multiplicity of religious and social belief. It's great to be an American, even if we make mistakes and can be wrong (my opinion) on many issues. We must stay vigilant, both at home and abroad, and remain engaged in world events (even when it costs us), and hopefully stay true to our higher ideals and avoid adopting tactics or measures that do not honor us.

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