Many people know something about the Iran hostage crisis, which began when the U.S Embassy in Tehran was stormed by angry Islamists on November 4, 1979. Fifty-two Americans inside it were then held hostage for 444 days, released only as Ronald Reagan was being sworn into office to succeed President Jimmy Carter.
Until now, hardly anyone has heard the story of the six other Americans who took a back exit out of the embassy and hid out in the home of the Canadian ambassador for almost three months.
Ben Affleck, who also produced and directed, stars as CIA agent Tony Mendez. Mendez comes up with the bogus movie idea and must now pull it off. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) plays his boss, Jack O’Donnell. They bring in Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman) for his industry expertise, and he in turn recruits Lester Siegel, a worldly-wise producer portrayed by the sweetly acerbic Alan Arkin.
Although amusing at times, Argo is a thriller. After a brief comic book history refresher recalling Iran’s Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini, the movie opens at the American Embassy, about to be breached. The emotion of the mob at its gates rolls and pulses like an impending storm while the diplomats inside quietly prepare for the onslaught. The tension is built by shifting back and forth from interior to exterior, and it’s very effective. We viscerally feel both the outrage of the locals and the trepidation of the foreigners.
An hour and a half later, the movie’s climax gradually ratchets up the anxiety from soft vocal tremors to a breakneck, harrowing chase scene so good that the acceleration presses you back in your seat.
Something else which works well in Argo is the sense of place and space. While some current films feel as through they were shot inside a phone booth to keep the budget down, Argo offers an acceptably big embassy compound and enough glimpses of “Tehran” to keep claustrophobia in check. There’s even a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop seen in passing.
In between, the body of the film is a mixed bag. Bearded Ben Affleck is dark, handsome, and resolute, but he doesn’t permit us any peeks into the kind of mind that could conceive of this wacky mission. Instead, he’s just a standard-issue CIA cipher. Similarly with Bryan Cranston, who could be the CIA boss in any 1980s TV movie. John Goodman is his usual shrewd and avuncular self, and Alan Arkin is delightful and inspiring.
The six fugitive “houseguests” are a bland bunch. In addition to their late-70s hair and moustaches, there is much smoking of cigarettes and wearing of gigantic plastic-rimmed glasses as they wring their hands and helplessly await an outcome. As for the fake science fiction movie — whose exotic location is the whole premise for the presence of this party of “Canadians” in Iran — it never gets developed much beyond a poster, a few storyboards, and a script. A table read is staged for the press, but there are no memorable characters or lines.
Weakest among Argo‘s shortcomings are the quick snatches of random rock songs from the period (“Little T&A” by the Stones, “Sultans Of Swing” by Dire Straits, Van Halen’s “Dance The Night Away“) which are waltzed in and out of soundtrack for no good reason.
All in all, though, Argo is an enjoyable two hours. It’s a fascinating story based on real events (plenty of real footage is interspersed throughout, and more archival materials are incorporated into the end credits). It has strong tension, a bit of humor, and Alan Arkin. I rate it three stars out of four.
By the way, the real Tony Mendez has authored a book with Matt Baglio which was published in September: Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.
Above, Tony Mendez is interviewed by Fareed Zakaria on his GPS show for CNN.