There’s a lot to like about Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012), which is taut and exciting, funny and charming, and, gloriously too thrilling to be believed. Like many a good Hollywood potboiler, we’re told it’s based on a true story, but one that is partly generated in Tinseltown which means you really have to take the words “based” and “true” with a grain of salt. I haven’t a clue how accurately Argo portrays the real-life rescue mission of six diplomats of the 1979 Iranian hostage crises that involves a fake movie production to serve as a cover, but I do know that by the end of it I was strung out, exhilarated and ready for more. This is a top-notch thriller.
After installing Ayatollah Khomeini following the disposal of the hated Shah, Iranian revolutionaries storm the American Embassy and take all it’s inhabitants hostage except for six, who were able to slip out and hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). As a crises that was supposed to last a matter of hours stretches on for months, American operatives grow restless and worried about the six, who the revolutionaries temporarily don’t realize are not among their hostages. The CIA plans to send them bikes for the three hundred mile journey to the border. That’s hard enough, made impossible by the fact that they would have to wait till spring for the weather to give them any chance of succeeding, a proposition the six in hiding don’t have time for. Then it’s suggested that the six impersonate agriculture teachers, in Tehran to cultivate its farms, but that plan is similarly plagued by a seasonal malaise. Agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) puts forth that the cover should be a movie production that the six are involved in. He will go to Iran impersonating a Canadian film producer and rescue the six, who will pretend that they’ve been there scouting locations for a science fiction film. If this wasn’t based on fact, the suggestion of such a silly operation when weighted against such real consequences would seem inconceivable (and there are some in the Agency that see it that way), but Mendez and his boss O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) have to admit, in a stack of bad plans, this is the best one.
Mendez is then dispatched to the hostile environment of Southern California, where he has to organize filmmakers to quickly put in motion what seems to be a real production. He enlists a make-up man, John Chambers (John Goodman), and a veteran executive producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, rarely better) who in the span of days have a script, a poster and an ad in variety. The name of the faux film is Argo, a terrible sounding Star Wars (1977) rip off complete with a pair of robots and something that looks like Chewbacca only blue.
The first half of the movie sets up the ludicrous mock movie while poking fun at Hollywood and it glides by with ease. John Chambers was a real make-up artist best known for Planet of the Apes (1968) but Lester Siegel seems to be a fictional combination of people (perhaps Lester Cowan and Sam Spiegel). Arkin is wonderful as the crotchety old hand who tells Mendez that the whole town is run on bullshit and then brings him along to meetings to prove it. “’What starts in farce ends in tragedy,’” he misquotes to Chambers. “Who said that exactly?” Chambers tells him Marx. “Groucho said that?”
This first section certainly is the farce that precedes the more intense second half, but it’s a good primer. The movie industry is a collection of people who have to act like they’re something in fear of being found out, which is precisely what our six exiles will have to do, except the penalty isn’t a bad table at Spago, it’s their lives. Mendez arrives at the Canadian ambassador’s house in Tehran and informs the captives of the plan. A few are nonplussed that it’s taken the government this long to come up with a rescue and when they did, it’s this. Some in the group, led by Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), threaten to refuse to participate. They’re diplomats, they don’t know anything about filmmaking and the odds of fooling the revolutionaries are grim. Faced with no better option everyone falls in line and the movie deviously invents devices to threaten the operation and tighten the screws.
From the moment Mendez arrives in Iran till the movie’s conclusion, it operates on a classic thriller formula of set-up and payoff. We’re told of the risks of the rescue in scenes of exposition, then we’re given them actually happening with additional complications. A running tension throughout Argo involves the revolutionaries nearing the discovery of the identities of the missing six. When the Embassy was sacked, the employees put all of the documents in a shredder, including a roster of the names and faces of everyone who worked there. Throughout the period of hiding, children have been working all day reconstructing the roster from the shredded strips. This gives Affleck a lot of torque to ratchet the suspense as we see the authorities get closer and closer to complete images of the people they’re looking for. Of course, this being a big Hollywood thriller, the revolutionaries acquire the identities the very moment Mendez and the six, acting as Canadian filmmakers, are trying to board a plane to freedom. The climactic collision of hunters and hunted goes way over the top and is unnecessary, there’s a sequence immediately before it involving the group being interrogated right at the finish line which is much more tense and isn’t helped any by the showy theatrics. Argo is much better served by the little elements it introduces that have the potential to be big problems, than by vestigial flourishes that feel tacked on by the second scriptwriter of a Lester Seigel movie.
Affleck nicely handles the light Hollywood stuff and the heavy hostage drama and there are scenes of torture and mistreatment that are quite harrowing. This isn’t a penetrating look at Middle Eastern relations or the constant anxiety of those in hiding but it doesn’t want to be. It works on the level of Apollo 13 (1995), itself only a surface deep glance at the majesty of space travel, that gave us a spellbinding presentation of an impossible problem then let us watch people we like try to fix it. Argo is a lot of fun, and more than a true story, it’s based on a time-honored tradition of a good yarn told well.