It’s based on a true story, but don’t worry if you don’t recall it. Only a handful of people even knew it was going on at the time – or for years afterward.
Ben Affleck stars as Tony Mendez in Argo a presentation of Warner Bros. Pictures in association with GK Films. Photo by Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros.
Director-star Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is about a super-secret CIA mission to pluck a small group of refugee American diplomat-citizens to safety from the chaos of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The plan was so undercover, it wasn’t even de-classified and made public until the late 1990s.
As the movie begins, the six Americans escape from the fallen American embassy in Tehran just as it’s swarmed and taken over by Iranian revolutionaries, seething with anger at the United States. Their 60-some colleagues, not so lucky, are captured in what would eventually stretch into the 444-day ordeal that would become the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
The Americans slip out a back door and make their way amid the confusion to the house of the Canadian ambassador, who agrees to hide them – at tremendous risk to himself and his family. Getting caught harboring the American “spies” would certainly mean arrest for everyone, perhaps even public execution by a lynch mob.
Back in Washington, realizing the direness of the situation, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) knows a conventional “extraction” is out of the question. So he concocts a preposterous-sounding scheme involving a fake Hollywood sci-fi movie, a la “Star Wars” or “Planet of the Apes,” and sending himself to Iran pretending to be a Canadian producer on a location-scouting mission.
Once there, he’ll “disguise” the Americans as his Canadian film crew, forge some passports and bring them out of the country with him when he comes home.
The CIA higher-ups aren’t quite sold on the idea, but even they realize there simply aren’t many other ideas to be found. “You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” they ask.
Affleck, whose previous success as a director includes “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” has moved his bar up another considerable notch with “Argo.” It’s Oscar-worthy material, an adrenaline-pumping saga that crackles with excitement from its opening scene to its closing seconds.
It’s also got plenty of wit, especially in its depiction of the inside-movie-making process, and a savvy grasp of the look and feel of its era – the ’70s facial hair, color palette, clothes, glasses, music, and TV newscasts.
“Argo” splits its time between the increasingly tense situation in Tehran and Mendez’s scramble to make his fake movie. As the Iranian revolutionaries are growing closer by the day to discovering the identities and location of the refugees, the CIA agent is collaborating in Hollywood with two filmmaking insiders, a special-effects guru (John Goodman) and a veteran producer (Alan Arkin), to ensure that the fake movie, “Argo,” will have a realistic premise, characters, storyboards and even advance press to convince the Iran authorities that it’s the real deal.
“If I’m doing a fake movie,” says Arkin’s character, “it’s gonna be a fake hit.”
One wrenching scene cuts back and forth between a glitzy casting call media event for the movie in a Hollywood hotel, and a dire situation in the embassy when several hostages are roused from sleep, marched into the basement, blindfolded and positioned in front of a firing squad.
When Mendez hits the ground in Iran, the clock is definitely ticking. And as his risky deception comes down to its final, do-or-die moments, you’ll be as every bit as nervous as the six Americans who’ve been asked to impersonate a director, a cameraman, and the other faux filmmakers faking a fantasy on which their real lives depend.
The business of movies has always been one of illusion, but the line between real and reel has rarely been drawn with such artfully crafted tension…and timeliness. Ben Affleck’s taut, terrific “Argo” tells the little-known retro tale of a time three decades ago when Hollywood and Washington rode to the rescue with a phony film – in a situation that, given today’s headline news from the Middle East, seems not only frighteningly, jarringly real, but like it could easily have happened last week.