Film review: Argo

In 1979, the revolutionary Iranian government allowed a mob to seize the American embassy in Tehran, and then kept the staff hostage for 444 days.  Six Americans managed to escape the sacking of the embassy and ended up in the residence of the Canadian ambassador.  How did they get out?  If they made a movie about it, you might not believe that it actually happened, especially if the movie claimed that Hollywood came to the rescue.

But actually, Argo doesn’t really make that argument. CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) specializes in exfiltration, and faces perhaps his most daunting mission ever — getting the six Americans hidden by Canada out of Iran, when every Iranian revolutionary wants to find an American spy.  He suggests a cover story that even he and his friend assess as the least bad option: create a film production company, publicize the phony film so that the trade journals pick it up, and then issue fake Canadian passports to the Americans and fly them out of Iran as the film crew.  When Mendez enlists the real-life Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood mover and shaker Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), that just provides the cover story. The real action takes place when Mendez, using the cover name Kevin Harkins, flies to Tehran to get the Americans out.

I was a little surprised when readers picked this film for me yesterday to review, but very pleased.  I hadn’t yet taken the opportunity to watch it, and it is one I wanted to see.  I remember the hostage crisis very, very well, as did most of the people who lived through that shameful episode, and I remember the joy of the escape of these six Americans very clearly.  Affleck puts us back into that time frame seamlessly, and the connection is almost uncomfortably visceral.  In fact, I’d bet that anyone my age or older would have a significantly different experience watching this film than younger viewers will have.  The pacing and timing is taut, and Affleck delivers on the suspense of the situation, allowing us to feel a share of the joy and relief of the Americans as they clear Iranian airspace.

Those expecting a political lecture will be either disappointed or relieved.  The politics of the situation is almost entirely ignored, except in reference to Iranian politics and the US/UK-sponsored coup d’etat of the Mossadegh government in the early 1950s.  Those expecting this to be a Hollywood-saves-the-day film will likewise be disappointed/relieved.  While their involvement was real — Chambers won a civilian intelligence award for his part — they are a relatively minor part of the story, and mostly provide some comedy relief.  (The real-life Chambers chose Argo as the film title because of a love of knock-knock jokes, the punchline of which becomes a running R-rated joke.) This is a CIA film from beginning to end, one of the few success stories that we know from that period, even if we only found out about it years later.

What isn’t a joke is the unrelenting malevolence and danger of the Iranian revolutionaries. The film creates an oppressive environment not just for the 56 hostages seized by the mullahcracy, but also for the six who managed to escape.  It’s a gripping tale well told, and it’s almost too good; the danger feels so realistic, one hesitates to re-enter the environment.  However, a first viewing is almost a requirement for those who lived through the period, and perhaps more so for those who didn’t.  It might explain a few things about the current standoff between the US and Iran, and why we aren’t inclined to take their threats about a world without the US and Israel lightly.

It should be noted that the film tends to shortchange the Canadians, and the British and New Zealanders to a lesser extent.  Don’t take my word for it — Jimmy Carter makes it clear that the film tends to credit the CIA at the expense of the Canadians:

“The only thing that I would say was that 90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian,” he told Morgan. “And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA. And with that exception, the movie’s very good.”

CIA operative Tony Mendez, who was played very well Affleck, was only in Tehran for “a day and a half.”

The main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process,” said the 39th president. “I was informed about it the first day, and I was very much involved with the Canadian government because the Canadian government would not legally permit six false passports to be issued. So the Canadian parliament had to go into secret session the first time in history, and they voted to let us use six Canadian passports that were false.”

Carter also said that although there was some political risk for him and the U.S. to use a ruse of a film crew going into Iran to rescue these Americans, the real credit goes to Canada.

“It was much bolder for the Canadian government to do because the Canadian government was not involved in the hostage crisis.”

Just to make sure the record is clear, the film shows Mendez in Teheran for what appears to be parts of two days, but they do make up the bulk of the second half of the film.  Regardless of what Mendez did, Carter’s right: Ken Taylor was a hero who saved the lives of those six Americans, and fortunately the film paints him very much that way.

Tonight, Argo goes up against Lincoln and eight other films for the Academy Award.  If I were voting, I’d go with Lincoln, but that doesn’t mean Argo isn’t a terrific film.  Again, I’d recommend it very highly.

Argo is rated R for language and violent images.  It’s not for children or young teens, but older teens should be able to handle it.