Argo is an absorbing, entertaining thriller that tells the true(ish) story of how Canadians, the CIA and Hollywood saved the day, working together to spirit six Americans out of Tehran during the dark days of the Iran hostage crisis. Crisply directed by Ben Affleck, it’s a well-made period piece with an excellent eye for detail — and a potent secret weapon.
The secret weapon is the improbable cover story created by the CIA to provide false identities for the Americans. Working with Hollywood insiders, the CIA set up a fake movie project: a schlocky post-Star Wars sci-fi spectacle with a Middle Eastern production vibe that might credibly bring a Canadian film crew to Tehran.
The fact-based premise is almost enough to sell Argo by itself. The film opens and closes as a tense political spy caper, but it’s also an affectionate send-up of the movie-making process. The old advice to writers to “write what you know” is applicable to movies about movies, from Singin’ in the Rain to The Artist, and few subjects inspire Hollywood — or appeal to movie fans and film critics — more reliably than Hollywood itself.
Many movies have shown that it’s not necessary to show successful moviemakers (Ed Wood, Bowfinger, Be Kind Rewind). Now Argo establishes that a movie about a movie project doesn’t have to involve an actual movie at all. Not that the fake movie is entirely imaginary. There’s a real script, real storyboards, costumes, even a glitzy script reading at the Beverly Hills Hilton covered by the trade magazines — all to create the convincing impression that a movie is being made.
John Goodman, who played a fictional studio boss in The Artist, plays real-life make-up artist John Chambers, best known for his Oscar-winning work on the Planet of the Apes films and for creating Leonard Nimoy’s pointy Mr. Spock ears. “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything?” Chambers summarizes after getting the scoop from CIA technical ops officer Tony Mendez, played by Affleck in an effectively low-key performance and a shaggy head of hair. “You’ll fit right in.”
Affleck’s directorial chops are evident in his most ambitious film to date, a large-scale international production shot in the United States and Turkey, with Istanbul playing itself as well as doubling for Tehran. (There’s a gorgeous sequence at the Hagia Sophia, including a conversation set against the great Deësis mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, for no obvious reason except that it’s there.)
It is startling how recent events have lent Argo an almost uncanny currency — in the process highlighting sobering current realities downplayed by the media. We see images of angry, chanting mobs besieging a U.S. Embassy in a Muslim country, climbing over the walls, burning American flags. Inside the embassy, personnel slowly realize the desperation of their situation in conversations not unlike the ones that must have taken place in Libya and elsewhere only a few weeks ago.
Opening voice-over (illustrated with a blend of movie-production storyboards and photographs) establishes the political back story: American attempts to engineer regime change have backfired, leading to anti-American resentment and violence. All this takes place during a Democratic administration whose stumbling initial response may have encouraged further violence.
As an early scene depicts the U.S. intelligence community brainstorming possible cover stories to smuggle out the Americans who have escaped capture and have been given secret sanctuary at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, it’s impossible not to think of the phony immunization program in Pakistan staged by the CIA in an unsuccessful bid to get blood samples from Osama bin Laden’s compound.
Could the CIA issue the Americans fake press credentials? Mendez immediately shoots this suggestion down. If the Iranian Republican Guard catches them using fake journo passes, he points out, “it’ll be Peter Jennings’ head on a platter.” These and other considerations lead the CIA to reject “do-gooder” cover identities from teachers to crop inspectors.
This caution is cast in an unexpectedly poignant light in view of the actual fallout from the discovery of the CIA’s phony immunization program. Not only was the Pakistani doctor who cooperated with the CIA arrested, legitimate vaccination programs have fallen under suspicion and been shut down in Pakistan and Afghanistan, putting children and others at risk, and heath-care workers have been attacked and shot.
Over Argo’s closing credits, former president Jimmy Carter is briefly heard (presumably in audio recorded after the operation was declassified in 1997) noting that, while it was tempting to take credit for the successful cover operation used to extract the six Americans, the story had to be kept under wraps. Why wasn’t the bin Laden immunization cover operation equally well guarded?
To help create the appearance of a real movie, Chambers brings in a veteran Hollywood mogul named Lester Siegel (a hilarious Alan Arkin), a fictional character that the real filmmakers say is a composite of industry figures. Another amalgam, CIA agent Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), works from Langley to support Mendez in the field. (Cranston conceived his character as a devout Catholic and fingered rosary beads when shooting scenes of tension.)
Chambers and Siegel add bold splashes of color to what is otherwise a low-key cast. Affleck is all business as Mendez, a straight man with rare flashes of personal feeling, such as during a phone call with his young son living with Mendez’s estranged wife. Mendez and Siegel have a nice exchange about the toll certain businesses can take on a marriage; Siegel compares working in Hollywood to working in a coal mine, bringing the filth of the business home with you every day to your family. (Mendez has an even more charged analogy for his job: He compares his work to doing abortions. Despite this, the denouement holds out hope for a reconciliation. “Kids need their mother,” Siegel says at one point. A few decades after the 1970s, it’s clearer than ever that kids need their father, too.)
Argo keeps the story focused on the rescue operation, so we don’t really get to know the six Americans, their heroic Canadian hosts or the Iranians whose actions threaten their lives. Among the supporting cast, one figure has a nail-biting scene that establishes that not all Iranians or all Muslims were the enemy. Some might wish for more character development, but I’ve always appreciated procedurals that stick to events with minimal character drama: films like United 93, which, like Argo, shrewdly focuses on the one triumphant chapter in an otherwise bleak historical moment.
Not that Argo sticks to the historical facts nearly as closely as United 93. In the last act, in particular, the film pumps up the drama of the escape with predictable thriller complications and tension. It’s transparent and contrived, but it works all the same.
The best moment in the escape, though, comes down to a classic Hollywood pitch: a moment when a storyteller has a few moments to make his listeners believe in the magic of a movie that doesn’t exist. In a typical pitch, success or failure could mean the difference between a movie being made or not. The stakes are higher here, but the method and the goal are the same.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Frequent obscene language, often for comic effect; some profanity; a few violent images; a brief illustration depicting a nude woman; a fleeting, metaphorical reference to abortion. Might be fine for mature teens.