The Iran hostage crisis began on Nov. 4, 1979, when Islamist militants and students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, capturing 52 Americans who went on to endure 444 days as prisoners.
This is not their story. Argo recounts the “Canadian caper” involving six additional embassy staffers who fled before their colleagues were seized and who found sanctuary with Canadian diplomats, including ambassador Ken Taylor.
Directed by Ben Affleck,
A quick, comic-book-style historical recap – noting that Western meddling resulted in a coup d’état which replaced Iran’s secular parliamentary democracy with an absolute monarchy – makes way for a matter-of-fact presentation of the storming of the embassy, an opening scene all the more powerful in light of the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The militants are thorough to the point that they enlist children and carpet-weavers to piece together shredded personnel documents in the hopes of discovering any American escapees, so even once the dust has settled, the clock is ticking.
With the state department mulling its options, it falls to CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his movie-industry contacts – make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) – to put together a fake movie so convincing it will succeed as a cover story get the six most wanted people in the Middle East out of incredible danger.
Writer-director Ben Affleck, who pulled the same double duty on 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town, finally comes into his own in both capacities, somehow maintaining near-perfect balance in a movie that is equal parts Black Hawk Down and Ocean’s Eleven – opposites that they are – combining the terrifying premise of isolation in enemy territory with the kind of far-fetched, madcap antics only Hollywood could supply (historically, it seems, as well as today).
The ending may be in the history books already, but that doesn’t stop Argo from bringing new meaning to the term “nail-biter”; as historical fiction, as a thriller inspired by actual events, or as anything else it might be called, it is positively nerve-wracking.
Chalk that up partly to the extensive cast of character actors, some as well-known as they are adroit (John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Richard Kind, and Affleck himself) and others with faces more recognizable than their names (Clea DuVall, Philip Baker Hall, Michael Parks, Super 8’s Kyle Chandler, Titanic’s Victor Garber, Buffy’s Tom Lenk, and a bevy of 24 alumni including Bob Gunton, eljko Ivanek, Omid Abtahi, and Christopher Stanley).
Cranston is one of few who has enough of a role to sink his teeth into as Mendez’s supervisor Jack O’Donnell – Affleck predictably takes centre stage – and he gets plenty of support from the ample screen personalities of Arkin and Goodman, who supply sporadic and much-needed levity.
If historical accuracy never goes out the window, the expected narrative tension still requires oversimplification and some notable contrivances. This retelling elides the assistance provided by diplomats from New Zealand and Britain, as well as other Canadians. A climactic confrontation is pure fabrication. And plenty more, from the abortive Operation Eagle Claw to the office of President Jimmy Carter – who lends a closing monologue to the end credits – simply falls outside the scope of the story.
But Argo, in finishing, leaves the viewer with that sated feeling of having just completed a project. And that satisfaction, derived from the vicarious thrill of a success more than 30 years old, can be interpreted in more ways than one as “Mission Accomplished.”