October 14, 2012 by Zack
This really happened. Keep that in mind when you watch some of the things this film depicts. A trashy sci-fi film, fake at that, saved the lives of 6 people. Now, some of the facts are a bit worked (the script and source material picked wasn’t originally called “Argo”), and I’m sure some of the climactic scenes are dramatized for effect–but director Ben Affleck does a masterful job of putting it all together in a very fun, very engaging, and very absorbing drama.
The story revolves around what is known as the “Canadian Caper”–after the Ayatollah takes power in Iran during the Iran Revolution, the US embassy is stormed and is taken hostage. Six of the members of the US embassy, however, escaped, and took refuge at the house of an ambassador from Canada. The six that have left aren’t accounted for at first; but the Iranians soon notice that there is a discrepancy in numbers. So they will hunt down the six missing and kill them if found. These are the stakes for the US government, and the CIA is brought in. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, in possibly his most low key role) is the one who comes up with the idea of faking a movie production and claiming the 6 are actually Canadian, on location in Iran scouting for filming a science fiction lark that’s basically a rip off of “Star Wars”. He gets this idea one night while talking to his son watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”.
The CIA is hesitant, to say the least, at first. They want to make up a story that the missing six are Canadian, but they are teachers or agricultural industrialists. Mendez points out it’s in the dead of winter in Iran (snow is on the ground), and the only North American school that was in Iran had been closed for almost a year already. Mendez’ plan is “the best bad idea” they have, and so they reluctantly approve it. Fortunately for the CIA, they have a guy in Hollywood that they’ve used before in the past, a make-up artist named John Chambers (gleefully played by the always reliable John Goodman) who happily agrees to help but isn’t quite sure at first how to put it in motion. He enlists the help of a film guru, Lester Siegel (brilliantly played with gusto by Alan Arkin), to bring the project together. They need to make it as “real” as a fake movie as they can–photo ops, a poster, storyboards, a script, and media hype. Somehow they manage to do it (albeit a little too easily as far as the portrayal in the film) and Mendez is assigned to go to Iran, disguised as an associate producer, to meet with the six that are now “part of the film crew”, and get them safely on a plane back to America.
When Mendez gets there, the six escapees are less than impressed with the idea and their covers, and don’t initially trust Mendez (who goes by a cover name). Mendez promises them he’s gotten people home before but admits never in this way. He gives them their cover identities, one being the director, another being a screenwriter, another being a cameraman, etc. They have a day to memorize their covers and know all there is to know about their identities as Canadians, and then they have to go into Tehran to “scout” the location.
It’s a bit less than successful on the scouting, as they’re attacked by some local Iranians who don’t like the look of them; and the housekeeper where they are staying starts to suspect who these six people really are. Tensions begin to mount as the Iranian hostage crisis continues into 1980, and the militants know that six people are missing, and are finding ways to locate their identities.
Meanwhile, Mendez is told by his friend Jack O’Donnell (an Oscar caliber performance by Bryan Cranston), that the CIA has pulled the plug on the “Argo” cover. They’re going to send military to the airport and get them home that way. Mendez doesn’t go for that, and against orders, continues with his plan.
The sequence of getting these six to the airport and the attempt at getting them safely on the plane is exciting, nailbiting, and dripping with suspense. Even though you’re pretty sure you know how this all is going to work out, there are so many close calls (again, most likely dramatized for effect), that you’ll be gripping your seat white knuckled the entire time. This is where Affleck really shows off his chops as a competent and even great film director.
For the most part, Affleck takes a back seat, not a big shot, not overdoing anything, but letting the characters breathe. These six people are the most important in the film, and he lets them be that. His character is the protagonist, but he doesn’t have any big melodramatic uproars or “speeches” that make everyone know that Affleck is at the helm of this whole project. He lets the film speak for itself, and that’s the mark of a true filmmaker.
There are a few little scenes of social commentary about the situation in Iran as well. For a brief moment the camera captures a few Iranians eating at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in downtown Tehran. The camera doesn’t linger, no character makes a mention of it, but Affleck seems to be clearly saying this: they eat our franchised fast food, they entertain the idea of filmmaking in their country, and yet they hate us and want us all dead. Hypocrisy maybe?
Again, he doesn’t push this on us. Only brief glimpses into Iranian lifestyles, and some of the Middle Eastern customs and cultures, and coverage of the demands of the Iranians during the hostage crisis are given. This isn’t a preachy film by any means. But I certainly think there is a message that says “not much has changed” since the crisis ended in 1980. You look at some of the footage, and it is exactly what we still see on the nightly news that goes on over there, especially concerning us, and especially with the recent embassy attack we had only a month ago.
But it’s not all serious, either. The script provides a lot of laugh out loud moments, well delivered by this excellent cast. There are great moments of comic relief just before the suspense can be overbearing.
This is a special film–it gives a deserved nod to the Canadians, to the determination of Mendez, and even the pat on the back from former President Carter who gave the go ahead to keep the mission alive and possible for the six escapees to return safely. This is a quiet film about heroism, but its heroes aren’t big and bulky with witty one-liners and bombastic hi-jinx. Unlike its fake movie counterpart, “Argo” is simply a classy story that says heroes can be soft spoken, but they never give up. And because of that, there’s always hope for a happy ending.