Ben Affleck’s Argo earned substantial praise right out of the chute when Roger Ebert tabbed it as the likely Best Picture winner based on, I presume, a strong story, well-acted, with Hollywood at its heart. (You just have to look at last year’s Best Picture winner to see how much that last point matters.) That aside, I knew the true story behind Argo was in itself interesting enough to make me want to see the film, as did the trailer that strongly evoked the look and feel of an era that exists largely at the periphery of my memories – I remember the hostage crisis and clearly remember seeing the bulk of the American hostages deplaining when they were finally released in 1981 – even if the film played a little loose with history. As it turns out, Affleck and company did a masterful job of infusing drama into a story where the conclusion is known to all at the film’s beginning, and the work they did in recreating 1979 provides a massive injection to your suspension of disbelief, to the point where even the bits that seem obviously false, like coincidental timing of two events, don’t break the spell the movie has over the viewer. The result is a heist movie without the pervasive unreality of most heist movies, yet one that retains the dry humor that sets the best heist movies apart from the rest.
The story, well-known by now but classified until 1997, involves the escape of six employees at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on the day that demonstrators breached the gates and stormed the building, taking another 60-odd employees hostage for what turned out to be 444 days. The six employees who escaped spent a night at the British embassy but had to leave and eventually found sanctuary at the Canadian embassy thanks to the courage of the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, and his wife, Pat, who could have faced execution had they been caught by the Revolutionary Guard. (Taylor discussed the story with BBC Witness earlier this week, stating that the biggest problem for his six houseguests wasn’t fear of discovery but boredom.) The U.S. government was aware early on that these six employees had escaped, but couldn’t come up with a viable plan to rescue them until extraction expert Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) came up with the idea to create a fake movie, with Mendes himself playing the film’s Canadian producer and the six escapees playing members of the film crew. The film in question was called Argo, and was a fairly blatant Star Wars ripoff that happened to be set in a place that made Iran a plausible location for the crew to be scouting. The group of seven ended up leaving Iran without as much trouble as Affleck’s film would indicate, although the truth would have been fairly dull on the screen, and Affleck also boosts the tension with a substantial amount of gallows humor from all angles, including John Goodman and Alan Arkin hamming it up beautifully as the fake film’s makeup guy and executive producer. (Goodman also appeared in last year’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, and if there were a way to quantify the most underrated actors in Hollywood, he’d have to be on it.)
Argo, the real movie, shifts around the timing of certain events to heighten the drama, making the group’s escape from Tehran more thrilling by keeping them a half-step ahead of the Iranians at every point, including a race on the tarmac in the film’s climax that apparently never happened. If you knew none of the real story, however, every bit of this movie would seem plausible except for the coincidences of timing – Arkin and Goodman returning to their sham office in Hollywood just as the Iranian authorities are calling to confirm Mendez’ phony credentials, or the CIA finally authorizing the group’s tickets on SwissAir as the seven are waiting at the ticket counter at Tehran’s airport. The pacing, however, is so crisp that most viewers won’t have enough time to think about these improbabilities; the script never dwells too long on any one character, scene, or plot point, taking a story that, in reality, probably played out quite slowly and instead turning it up to fourth gear almost from the moment Affleck first appears on screen.
His appearance, and those of the six refugees, also help cement Argo‘s power to suck you into its story even with the occasional artistic license. Images during the final credits show how carefully the actors were chosen and made up to resemble the largely-unknown people they’re portraying, with hairstyles and fashions that are instantly recognizable for their era. The film is shot with the slightly muted tones you see when watching movies filmed in that era, while the settings, mostly in Tehran but also in D.C. and in Hollywood, are just as carefully constructed to take you back to that time period. The shots of Tehran are especially stunning, including reenactments of violent street demonstrations that will certainly evoke memories in any viewer my age or older.
Affleck will likely get a Best Director nod for Argo and perhaps one for Best Actor as well, but beyond his central role, it’s an ensemble effort, with the actors playing the refugees working with limited material to carve out unique identities for their characters, and only Bryan Cranston, playing Mendez’ supervisor at Langley, getting enough screen time to earn award consideration. I haven’t seen enough contenders to consider whether Argo deserves to win Best Picture, or even be nominated, but it would be ironic and perhaps a bit awkward if a film that paints the Iranians as dimwits were to earn that honor when the unbelievable Iranian film A Separation was consigned to the foreign-language category just a year earlier.
If you want more of the true story behind the film: the Wired story from 2007 that Affleck optioned for the film version; The Houseguests: A Memoir of Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery, a self-published memoir from Mark Lijek, one of the six embassy employees rescued by the CIA; and Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, co-authored by Tony Mendez himself.