One part compelling documentary, two parts zany Hollywood comedy, and three parts suspenseful spy thriller, Argo is one hundred percent excellence in filmmaking.
Although the events depicted in Argo occurred 33 years ago, they could not be more timely. In 1979 we had a likable but inept president whose policies could not avert double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation, and the doubling of gas and oil prices; today we have a likable but inept president whose policies have led to stagnant growth, high unemployment, doubling of the national debt, and another doubling of gas prices. Both presidents dealt with turmoil and crisis in the Middle East as they campaigned for reelection.
When Ben Affleck set out to dramatize a recently declassified covert operation that took place within the context of the Iranian hostage crisis over 30 years ago, he could not have known that a similar crisis would erupt in the same part of the world exactly one month before his film was released. Watching hostages in Argo quake with fear as they are blindfolded by their tormentors and dragged before a firing squad, viewers cannot help but think of Ambassador Chris Stevens being dragged through the streets of Benghazi on his way to a horrifying death just last month. This unintended melding of the two stories adds to the suspense created in this well-made film.
Argo begins with a brisk montage of historic photos, film footage, and newspaper headlines taken from the days and weeks of the Iranian hostage crisis that began November 4, 1979. A young Walter Cronkite and an even younger Ted Koppel report the news from old-fashioned television screens. Many people have forgotten that ABC's “Nightline” began as a temporary nightly update about the hostage crisis; 444 days later, when the hostages were released (on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration), the news show had become so entrenched that it stayed on as a serious alternative to NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and the CBS “Late Movie,” which eventually gave way to Letterman's “Late Show.” Ted Koppel earned his stripes reporting the Iranian hostage crisis and paved the way for all-news cable shows.
As the crisis begins, embassy personnel are busy doing other things: processing visas, filing reports, and interviewing local Iranians who wait patiently in the outer rooms. When angry mobs threaten to storm the building, embassy workers rush to shred documents, burn files, break metal plates used for counterfeiting documents, and destroy computers. Ignoring threats to their own lives, they focus intensely on eliminating all sensitive material that could lead to the torture and death of Americans and local residents who are friendly to Americans. This is absolutely essential for national security and for the safety of regional operatives (local spies) in Iran.
The film deftly portrays the rising panic among security personnel inside the building while angry young men climb the walls and breach the compound. “We need some security, and you’re responsible!” one man screams into a phone, presumably to someone in the State Department. During a security briefing another man warns, “Don’t shoot anyone. Don’t be the one to start a war. If you shoot one person, they will kill everyone in here.” As a result, security personnel seem afraid to act. They hold their guns, but they don’t use them. One goes outside to try reasoning with the mob, but of course that just feeds the frenzy. In short, the fear of being responsible for diplomatic consequences is crippling.
During this confusion, six Americans slip out a back door and run for safety. But in a country overpowered by anti-American sentiment and energized for a fight, where might safety be found? Several embassies turn them away before the Canadian ambassador and his wife (Victor Garber and Page Leong) agree to take them in. But they are still far from being free, or even safe. Forced to hide in a room beneath the floorboards, they cannot leave the ambassador’s residence. They live in constant fear that local domestic workers will reveal their presence to Iranian insurgents, putting Canadian embassy personnel in danger as well. The scene is reminiscent of Jews hidden in attics and basements by friendly neighbors during the Holocaust. Spiriting these six unexpected hostages out of Iran becomes an even stickier problem for the US State Department than negotiating for the 52 publicized hostages.
Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials.
This is where the zany Hollywood comedy comes in. State Department officials come up with such solutions as providing the six Americans with bicycles so they can ride to the border (300 miles away) or pretending that they are part of an agricultural team investigating crops (even though it is winter) or that they are volunteer teachers (even though all Western teachers have been withdrawn from the country). After dismissing these ideas, seasoned CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) suggests pretending they are members of a film crew doing a site inspection for a science fiction flick called Argo.
Mendez turns to makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to act as director and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to act as producer on this bogus film, and together they select a script from among genuine screenwriter submissions. Goodman and Arkin ham up their scenes with insider jokes about Hollywood while also demonstrating that they understand the gravity of the situation. Human lives are at stake, and they know it. They also impishly create a tagline with more zing than "Who is John Galt," a phrase that is reflected in the title of this review.
But the real story of this film takes place in Iran, where Mendez must first convince the six hostages that the plan will work, and then teach them how to play their roles as set designer, director, cinematographer, etc., all in a matter of two days. Tension mounts as time draws near. They must act their parts convincingly and be prepared to answer any question that might come up as they go through airport security. If one person blows it, they all go down. Audience members have to be thinking, “Could I do this? Could I make it through this intense scrutiny?” and this adds to the tension of the film.
Mendez must also convince the State Department not to give up on the plan. At one point a State official says pragmatically, “Six Americans executed at the Canadian embassy is an international incident; six Americans caught playing filmmakers with a CIA spy is an embarrassment.” Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials. I'd like to think they were concerned that CIA involvement would lead to retaliation against the remaining hostages. Mendez, however, refuses to leave without the people he has come to rescue.
To avert retaliation against the American hostages still held in Iran, Canada received all the credit for masterminding the rescue. Now that the case has been declassified, the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez's daring plan for spiriting the six hostages from the Canadian embassy and onto a plane leaving Iran can be revealed. But this should not detract from the gratitude afforded the Canadian ambassador and his wife. They risked their own lives and gave up their residence to help these American strangers.