THE MOVIE WAS FAKE. THE MISSION WAS REAL.
In my reviews of Persepolis (2007) and A Separation (2011), I wrote that those films offer a well-needed opportunity to understand Iran. Argo, however, is not that type of film. It did in fact receive some criticism for portraying Iranian protesters as fierce animals, thereby playing into a perceived notion of the Middle East. Still, those critics are ignoring the fact that Iran was very volatile at the time, with much (justified) anger toward the deposed Shah whom the U.S. was sheltering – and that anger was scary. As a director, Ben Affleck actually creates a balance in his approach to the Iranian hostage crisis that is admirable.
Taking over 50 embassy employees hostage
Tehran, 1979. As the American embassy staff desperately try to burn sensitive material, a huge mob of enraged protesters push through the gates and eventually take over 50 embassy employees hostage. Six of them escape and make their way to the Canadian embassy. In Washington, the Carter administration is trying to figure out a way to solve the crisis and get the six men and women out of Iran. The State Department has taken charge of a secret rescue mission, but when CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his superior, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), are brought onboard as advisers, they realize that State’s plan is bound to fail.
It dawns on Mendez that a crazy-enough plan might just work; what if the CIA, in liaison with a Hollywood contact, sets up a fake production company intent on making a science fiction movie in Iran? A location scouting journey could become a rescue mission – with Mendez as producer.
Breathtakingly exciting scenes
Amazingly, this movie is based on a real-life case that was declassified in the 1990s, and which involved Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers, who worked for the CIA. A lot of the film remains true to the real story, even though the final, breathtakingly exciting scenes where Mendez is trying to get the six Americans aboard a plane bound for Europe are apparently exaggerated.
It doesn’t matter, because those scenes not only show Affleck’s filmmaking skills but also fit perfectly with the story as a whole. Not only does he create a very entertaining (and funny) portrait of Hollywood at its most cynical, as represented by John Goodman’s Chambers and Alan Arkin’s fictional producer (a wonderful duo), but he also gets very close to Tehran and the situation in 1979 without ever actually visiting Iran; that’s part of what Hollywood really can achieve. The balance is there. We understand why the Iranian students are angry, why the Americans have a reason to fear everyone in that country. We understand what crimes the Shah committed with America’s help and we understand what crimes the new theocracy are committing. Early in the film we also see disgusting acts of violence committed in the U.S. by protesters against Iranians in the country; Affleck gets across the general hostility of the times.
The human side of the story works very well, although Mendez as played by Affleck and the six escapees are less interesting than Goodman, Arkin and Cranston, who’s excellent as the senior CIA operative who has Mendez’s back throughout the risky affair.
Lastly, I have to commend Chris Terrio for writing a terrific screenplay. According to his biography, he has barely ever gotten anything produced in this business. Now, after the success of Argo he’s signed a two-picture deal with Warner, and he’s already got another project going with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, co-producers on this movie. I certainly wish him all the best.
Argo 2012-U.S. 120 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Grant Heslov. Directed by Ben Affleck. Screenplay: Chris Terrio. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Editing: William Goldenberg. Cast: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber, Tate Donovan… Zeljko Ivanek.
Trivia: Inspired by a 2007 article in Wired. Brad Pitt was allegedly considered for the lead role. Part of the story was also portrayed in the TV movie Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper (1980).
Oscars: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director. BAFTA: Best Film, Director, Editing.
Last word: “Tone is something that we talked about a lot. It was about, how do you tell a story that is geo-political, where the stakes are very high and you have lives hanging in the balance, but at the same time, be able to go to the press conference at the Beverly Hilton and keep the irony and acerbic nature of some of the dialogue without compromising either tone. That was a mix. That’s something that was not only at the script stage, but throughout the process. That’s where Ben’s sense of humor, sense of timing and sense of filmmaking really was the guide. It was about saying, ‘How much can we get away with here? How do we get it right, and how do we make it all look like the same movie?’ I don’t know how Ben pulled that off, but he did.” (Terrio, Collider)