In the midst of the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis of 1979, a CIA “exfiltration” specialist (Ben Affleck) hatches a plan to smuggle six American Embassy workers out of Iran by disguising them as a film crew. He must convince the Iranians that these six are not Americans but Canadians scouting out locations for a movie – a fake Star Wars rip-off that takes place in the Middle East, titled “Argo.” These are the true events, declassified by President Clinton in 1997, on which director Ben Affleck’s stranger-than-fiction Argo is based.
The film eases us into this complex history with an intro that uses comic book-style animation somewhat reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s vision of the revolution in her animated Persepolis. It may be a sad statement about moviegoers’ knowledge of history that these things must be explained to us in pictures, but this opening does avoid the tendency to ignore the political realities that led up to the 1979 events that took Americans by surprise. The first minute of the film explains the rule of the U.S.-imposed Shah without sugar-coating his regime’s abuses. It briefly describes the Iranian Revolution that overthrew him and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the American offer of amnesty to the Shah, who was whisked away to the U.S. before the Iranians could try him for his crimes.
The film moves immediately to the events of November 4, 1979, when Iranians angry about the U.S. protection of the Shah storm the American Embassy in Tehran, taking hostage 52 American embassy workers who would be held by the Iranian government for over a year. Here scenes of the attackers outside the embassy are intercut with scenes of those inside the embassy – not only American workers but also Iranians who are there waiting in line to get U.S. visas. Those inside peer from the embassy windows, watching in trepidation as huge crowds form outside the gates, threaten to get in, and eventually do. This action is brilliantly shot, as the embassy workers argue frantically with each other about whether — and moments later, how — to escape.
The six flee the American Embassy and find themselves hiding out in the home of Canadian Embassy officials. If found out, they could be killed on the spot. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the CIA’s “Moses” who travels into an explosive Iran full of people setting American flags on fire and shooting each other in the streets. He must remove the six from the country, because it’s just a matter of time before the Iranian government realizes it’s missing some hostages.
All of this is obvious fodder for suspense, the intensity of which is sure to please audiences (In my screening, the film’s third act drew applause even before the movie was over). The pleasantly surprising thing, though, is that the film is so very funny. John Goodman and Alan Arkin play the Hollywood makeup artist and famous producer who help Mendez create a believable project, including getting a script, launching promotional events, and most importantly, getting “Argo” news into the industry trade magazines so the Iranians will be convinced it’s the real deal. Much of the joking is aimed at Hollywood, as line after line milks the absurdity of coupling CIA operations with Hollywood artifice. Chris Terrio’s screenplay dances back and forth across the line between horror and humor, allowing this film to rise above the typical political thriller.
Likely to be a Best Picture contender, Argo opens Friday.
Final Verdict: An against-the-clock thriller that is smartly funny throughout, Argo grips you from the very beginning. It provides a suspenseful climax and a fascinating closing credits sequence that will please political wonks and movie buffs alike.