In 1980, at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA agent and “exfiltration” expert named Antonio Mendez quietly slipped into the chaotic country and was able to facilitate the escape of a group of American diplomats that had been holed-up and hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. He accomplished this heroic mission by posing as a movie producer for a science-fiction film called Argo.
Ben Affleck (Daredevil) stars as Intelligence Officer Tony Mendez and also directs the film, and while Argo is based on a true story, it does play fast and loose with many of the facts behind the “Canadian Caper,” the name that the actual operation would eventually be known as.
Argo begins with an interesting introduction to the history of Iran that is told in a comic-book style with storyboards (A technique that at first seemed a little odd, but made sense in the later context of the film.) and leads up to the events surrounding the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The live-action story starts when students storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and take nearly the entire American staff hostage.
A group of 6 Americans mange to escape and make their way to the Canadian Embassy and are then sheltered in the ambassador’s home. The Iranians have children piecing together photos of the American diplomatic staff that were shredded during the raid on the U.S. Embassy and it is only a matter of time before the Americans are discovered and most likely killed – together with the Canadians who have harbored them at great personal risk.
The U.S. State Department is in disarray and at a loss for devising a way to get the small group out of Iran, let alone what to do with the other hostages being held at their embassy. Officer Mendez concocts a plan to enter Iran posing as a Canadian film crew that is scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo, and then escorting the six victims out of the country as part of the film team. After getting approval he sets up a fake film company in Hollywood to act as a legitimate back-story in case the Iranians actually check into his credentials.
Mendez enters Iran and clears his film scouting plans through the Iranian Film Council, then meets up with the diplomats hiding at the Canadian Embassy. It takes some convincing to get them to go along with his crazy escape plan, but they have two days to pull it off and…well, it’s no secret as to what happens, but in case you don’t know I’ll pull the spoiler-plug there.
This is Affleck’s third feature film as a director and it is great to see him stretching and doing something that doesn’t take place in his beloved Boston. Argo is a fine effort and a very entertaining film but it is by no means the Academy Award shoe-in that many are touting. As for his acting in this role, he is flat-out boring, unemotional and detached; and maybe that is an intentional and honest portrayal of a hardened CIA operative, but that doesn’t mean he’s exciting to watch.
On the other hand, Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) steals the show as Lester Siegel, the movie producer that is brought in on the operation to help make it legit by facilitating the set-up of the movie company and the acquisition of its (Argo) script & storyboards, and by getting the faux production some trade publicity. Arkin fires off dozens of hilarious one-liners and this veteran actor continues to make his mark as one of Hollywood’s finest treasures. This fun part of the Argo film also holds some entertaining insights into the film business.
Argo also stars Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as a CIA big-shot who keeps the operation moving stateside and John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) as John Chambers, a real-life movie make-up artist who worked on films from Planet of the Apes to Blade Runner and who helped Mendez make the connections he needed within the film industry.
Affleck has given this film the look & feel of a movie that might have been actually produced in the late-seventies, with everything from the title fonts used to grainy film effects and sets that look like they were pulled straight out of All the President’s Men (1976). I don’t know how much footage of the actual Iranian assault on the U.S. Embassy was used and how much was recreated, but it is all blended seamlessly together.
Speaking of the seventies, there is some great classic rock music in Argo, but it is used to an abusive level. There is about a 15 minute section of film when it seems that every transition scene is ushered by yet another blaring classic rock ballad. OK, we get it, it’s the seventies and the music is still awesome.
For the most part, Argo is a taunt and intense thriller, but Director Affleck shows a little lack of discipline in some of his tension building sequences. There are only so many “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” narrative gimmicks that you can throw into one movie before it starts to become absurd, and Argo teeters right on that line – especially when many of these tension-creating devices are clearly only added for dramatic effect.
Although it is missing some facts, Argo does a good job of capturing the late-seventies and the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which is eerily similar to today’s current events. It’s an interesting and well-told story of an otherwise little known chapter in the CIA’s history, but it is ironically almost overdone with too much Hollywood embellishment.
Read about Argo’s amazing science-fiction facts