The date is November 4th, 1979, and the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran is surrounded by Islamist students and militants. The Ayatollah had assumed power earlier that year as a result of the Iranian Revolution, deposing the Shah, who had been installed in 1953 as part of US backed military coup. The Shah fled to the US, where he was being given medical treatment for cancer. As the protesters outside compound grow in numbers, volume and anger, one man cautiously climbs over the fence and onto American soil. He is followed by another, and another, and then the chains on the gate are cut, and the entire crowd swarms in. The US soldiers stationed inside the embassy eventually stand down, not wanting to fire into the civilians and cause a bigger incident. Eventually 52 American embassy workers are captured, and will remain hostages for 444 days, in what will become one of the defining moments in US-Iran relations. But what the Iranians didn’t know, was that six Americans escaped, and are on the run.
So begins one of the untold (or at least, not widely told) stories of the Iran hostage crisis. The challenge of finding a way to extract these six men and women from hostile territory falls to the CIA, and to operations officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an expert on exfiltration. Tony is brought in to consult with the State Department on possible covers that could be used to get these people back home safely, before the Iranians learn that they are on the loose. He quickly shoots down all of their ideas and comes up with something so crazy it just might work. Pretend to be a film crew, scouting locations for a movie to film in Iran. Tony will fly in, meet them and give them their cover stories, and they’ll all fly out together.
Argo is an interesting mix of humor and suspense. Tony uses a contact in Hollywood (Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers, played here by John Goodman) and the two of them set about setting up a fake movie. They find a real producer (Alan Arkin, in a role that is almost sure to get him another Oscar nomination) to help give the backstory some weight, and buy a real script for a cheap sci-fi film called Argo. The more real press they can get on their fake movie, the more believable their story will be when they try to sell it to the Iranians. Ben Affleck, as the director of the real Argo, now in theaters, does a skillful balancing act, managing to wring some serious laughs out of Hollywood lunacy while never letting us forget the underlying tension, and what’s at stake if the plan fails.
The jokes die away once Tony leaves for Tehran, where the six fugitives are being sheltered (at enormous risk) by the Canadian Ambassador. The Canadian government, in an unprecedented move, have granted Canadian passports to the six Americans, and all that remains is to convince the Iranians of the cover story, hoping they will believe that the story is too outlandish to be anything but true. The tension continues to build to the film’s conclusion, which is based in fact, but with a slightly obvious sense of over-inflated drama. Modern Hollywood dramatics, however, are not enough to overshadow the true anxiety of the situation.
There was no way, during the making of Argo, that the filmmakers could have know what would happen in Libya before their film would be released. Argo would have been highly topical at any time, given US-Middle East relations, but with recent events it becomes even more relevant. We so rarely think about those who work in foreign embassies. The Iran hostage crisis was over 30 years ago, after all, and it may seem like times have changed. But with the recent deaths of embassy workers in Libya, suddenly it is at the forefront of political discussions. Argo does an admirable job of trying to paint a balanced picture of the situation it presents. It’s obvious from the tone of the film’s opening that the filmmakers feel the Iranians were justified in their anger, given the history of US meddling in Iranian affairs. But they also make it clear that storming the US embassy compound and capturing US citizens was not a justified act. Argo is very careful to not paint the Iranians as villains, despite their actions. It uses boatloads of archival footage of newscasts and governmental statements, showing both Iranians burning US flags and Americans burning Iranian flags.
But Argo also never really paints the Americans as heroes. Instead it treats the situation they’re forced to deal with as the villian, the six men and women as the victims, and cooperation and the efforts of individuals as the heros. It never lets the audience forget what sort of odds the rescue is facing, and what stands to happen to the six if they’re discovered. It’s the story of a clever and determined group of people dealing with a horrible situation in the only way that might have a chance in hell of working. (If anyone comes out looking like a hero, it’s the Canadians. And rightfully so, given the risk they took in sheltering these men and women, and intervening to help get them home.) Affleck has shown he’s a skillful director, reminiscent of Eastwood in both his visual style and his storytelling efficiency. He lets the story, the setting and the situation breathe, knowing that those things are far more interesting than the people involved. None of the characters is given much in the way of depth, and it feels intentional, so that they won’t distract from the atmosphere of the story.
I would expect to hear a lot more about Argo as the awards season rolls around. It’s the sort of topical yet historical film that awards groups tend to love, and has a stand-out performance by Alan Arkin. Affleck long ago graduated from his heartthrob roles, and has become a serious artist in both his acting and directing. As an actor, he gives Tony Mendez a weariness and an underlying fear that shows he knows the odds and the stakes of the game. As a director, he gives Argo the proper weight due to the subject matter, while never letting the story get bogged down that weight. Argo understands the complexities of its (and our) time, without losing sight of the simple, life or death situation facing the six Americans in hiding. It’s a story that, were it described to you, you’d think it were too crazy to be true. But if you were to ask one of those six men and women, they’d probably tell you not to underestimate the value of a crazy story.