Argo – Movie Review
Argo stars Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell and John Goodman as John Chambers. It was directed by Ben Affleck from a screenplay by Chris Terrio.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this: [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
During the 1979 Iranian revolution, a CIA officer plans to help six American diplomats escape the country disguised as a Canadian film crew, but with the Revolutionary Guards closing in and no support from his superiors, he must move fast to avoid being caught and executed.
Argo: Plot Summary
Argo opens with a brief summary of the history of Iran, including the US-engineered coup that brought the Shah to power, the abuses that he perpetrated, and how that led to hatred of the Shah’s main sponsor, the USA, and an Islamic revolution.
During the revolution, Iranian militants storm the United States embassy in Tehran. They take most of the embassy staff hostage. but a few escape and are taken in by the Canadian ambassador.
The Hollywood Option
The CIA asks Tony Mendez, one of their ‘exfiltration experts’, to come up with a plan to help the fugitives escape from Tehran and get across the border. Options are few. It’s winter, so going through the mountains will be arduous. And there are very few foreigners in the country, making disguise difficult. Mendez suggests creating a cover story that the fugitives are a Canadian film crew looking for locations for a science-fiction film. They can then leave Tehran on a commercial flight.
Mendez contacts a Hollywood film producer and funds a film production company. They find a sci-fi script called Argo, that they can buy relatively cheaply. They create a buzz around the upcoming movie to get coverage in the trade papers and so lend credibility to the masquerade. Meanwhile, the Iranian revolutionaries discover that some American Embassy staff escaped, and start looking for them.
Mendez enters Iran pretending he is Argo’s assistant producer. He goes to the ministry of culture, to establish his cover by asking for a permit to film. The Iranians are suspicious.
At the Canadian ambassador’s house, Mendez meets up with the six fugitives. The Canadian ambassador provides all six with Canadian passports and Mendez gives them cover stories to learn. The fugitives are scared and sceptical of their ability to keep up their cover under interrogation, but Mendez persuades them there is no other option, as the Iranians are closing in. In fact, the Iranians already suspect the Canadian ambassador is harbouring the six missing Americans.
An Iranian Ministry of Culture representative asks to meet with the ‘film crew’.The streets of Tehran are full of angry crowds, but Mendez and the fugitives go to the meeting anyway. The crowd turns hostile and the team have to flee. This makes them even more nervous about the escape plan.
Mendez learns that the USA is planning a military strike to rescue of the hostages. His CIA superiors order him to cancel the escape, seeming to feel that if the Iranians capture the fugitives and kill them it will not necessarily be a bad thing, as it will increase the demand for war in the USA…
Despite [blackout]his orders, Mendez decides to go ahead. Facing a fait accompli, the CIA decides to help, as a failed escape will be worse than no escape. But they’ve already cancelled the airline tickets and have to scramble to get them reauthorised, with the fugitives standing in line at the airport.[/blackout]
At the first [blackout]airport checkpoint, the fugitives have to explain why their exit visas have no matching entrance visas, but convince the guards with a letter from the Ministry of Culture.[/blackout]
At the [blackout]embassy, the Iranians finally find pictures of the escapees and match them with the ‘Canadian film crew’. They race to the Canadian Ambassador’s house, which has been abandoned, and then rush to the airport.[/blackout]
At the last [blackout]airport checkpoint, the guards are much more suspicious and pull the team into an interrogation room. Even the cover story about the movie doesn’t convince them. The fugitives give the guards the telephone number of the supposed production company in Hollywood. The guards call the number and the ‘producer’ confirms their cover story. The guards are convinced and allow the group to board the aircraft.[/blackout]
The group [blackout]boards the plane, which takes off as the Iranians chase it down the runway. Clearing Iranian airspace, the group celebrates.[/blackout]
Back in [blackout]the USA, all credit for the rescue is given to the Canadians in order to hide the CIA’s involvement. Mendez is awarded the CIA’s highest honour, the Intelligence Star, but as the mission is secret, he won’t be able to tell anyone.[/blackout]
Argo has a straightforward ‘Mission’ plot. Mendez is brought in to rescue the fugitive diplomats. He makes a plan to do so and carries it out. Obstacles are piled in his way and he works his way through them until he achieves his mission.
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by his Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as he tries to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance subplot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission plan, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they encounter them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes)
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
The Antagonist in Argo never takes on an individual face, there is no ‘villain’. Instead the opposition to the Protagonist is provided by ‘the Revolutionary Guards’ or even (e.g. the scene in the souk) ‘Iranians’ in general. Also, the story is told almost entirely from Mendez’s point of view. There are a couple of brief jumps to his allies, but Iranian characters are almost absent from the film.
The film lacks a sympathetic Iranian character. There is a one slight exception, a single scene where the Iranian housekeeper (previously suspected as an informer) is interrogated by a Revolutionary Guard and doesn’t give the fugitives away. Apart from that scene, Iranians in the movie are shown only as an undifferentiated, angry mob who want to kill Americans.
Argo: The True Story
It’s worth noting that like Zero Dark Thirty,Argo is based on a true story, it’s not a documentary. There is a lot of dramatic licence and sheer invention in the movie, to the point that only the barest outline of the story is actually ‘true’.
Yes, there were American diplomats smuggled out of Tehran disguised as a film crew and Canadian diplomats and the CIA had some involvement – that’s about as far as it goes. The rest was simplified, exaggerated or plain made up for the movie.
- The British and New Zealand embassies didn’t refuse to help, and in fact the British took the fugitives in first, before handing them to the Canadians as they were under threat themselves (the British embassy was also overrun).
- Not all the fugitives stayed with the Canadian ambassador.
- The film was not even called Argo to start with, it was originally called Lord of Light and changed name later.
- The trip through the dangerous streets of Tehran to the souk didn’t happen.
- The escape was not cancelled, and Mendez didn’t go against orders to bring the diplomats back.
- There were no chases, no tough questioning at checkpoints and no nail-biting near misses.
- The ‘film crew’ cover story was never tested by the Iranians.
- In reality, the New Zealand ambassador drove the ‘film crew’ to the airport at 05:30 for an 07:00 flight, and they walked through airport security with hardly a question.
One event that did happen in both reality and in Argo was the Iranian housekeeper persuading the Revolutionary Guards that there were no Americans in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Ironically that’s not a major scene in the movie.
Argo: Alternative Movie Poster
This poster was produced by Michael Ngusa. I thought took an interesting approach, using stills from the movie. The ‘filmstrip’ is highly appropriate for a movie about a film crew.
Argo: My Rating
A gripping and tension filled movie, but not to be mistaken for a documentary.
Want to watch it?
Here’s the trailer:
Argo is available on DVD from Amazon US here and Amazon UK here
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It's the same the world over. A Hollywood production comes to town, and the locals all turn movie crazy. When a little picture named "Prancer" came to Three Oaks, Mich., I was sitting in the bar and overheard one bearded regular confide in his friend, "See that guy? He's assistant makeup."
As in Michigan, so in Iran. At the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, with yellow ribbons tied around half the old oak trees in America, a CIA agent and a couple of Hollywood professionals dreamed up a cockamamie scheme to free six Americans who had found refuge in the Canadian embassy. Their existence had to remain a secret to protect Canada's diplomatic status.
Enter the CIA "extractor" Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and a makeup man named John Chambers (John Goodman). Chambers has a brainstorm: He and Siegel would fabricate a fake sci-fi thriller named "Argo." They would commission a screenplay, pay for storyboards, and buy a big ad in Variety. Mendez would fly alone into Tehran and train the six Americans to impersonate Hollywood pros — the cinematographer and so on.
Their cover: They need desert locations for their movie, which would vaguely resemble "Star Wars." They would tell the Iranians the six people were Canadians who were scouting locations and now need to fly back to North America. One of the most enchanting scenes has Mendez showing the sci-fi storyboards to Iranian authorities, who try their best to conceal what movie buffs they are. At the end of the scene, when Mendez tells them "you can keep em," they're like kids being given an "E.T." poster by Steven Spielberg.
This preposterous scheme is based on fact. Yes, it is. Countless movies are "inspired by real events," but this one truly took place. The extraction of the six Americans remained top secret for 18 years. They all returned safely to America. "Argo," needless to say, was never filmed.
Ben Affleck not only stars in but also directs, and "Argo," the real movie about the fake movie, is both spellbinding and surprisingly funny. Many of the laughs come from the Hollywood guys played by Goodman and Arkin, although to be sure, as they set up a fake production office and hold meetings poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, they aren't in danger like their "crew members" in Iran.
Key supporting roles are filled by Bryan Cranston, as the CIA chief who green-lights the scheme, and Victor Garber, as the Canadian ambassador who at great risk opens his embassy's doors to the secret guests. Affleck is brilliant at choreographing the step-by-step risks that the team take in exiting Tehran, and "Argo" has cliff-hanging moments when the whole delicate plan seems likely to split at the seams.
The craft in this film is rare. It is so easy to manufacture a thriller from chases and gunfire, and so very hard to fine-tune it out of exquisite timing and a plot that's so clear to us we wonder why it isn't obvious to the Iranians. After all, who in their right mind would believe a space opera was being filmed in Iran during the hostage crisis? Just about everyone, it turns out. Hooray for Hollywood.