Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Chris Terrio and Tony Mendez
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
The hostage crisis would go on to last for 444 days but for the escapees they faced a shorter race against time. As child labourers painstakingly pieced together shredded security documents to identify every last American in the office, they knew that if they were found in hiding, they would face certain execution. After two months, they attempted their rescue by working with an American CIA operative who disguised them as a Canadian film crew making a sci-fi film inspired by Star Wars.
This incredible true story was first brought to light when President Clinton declassified the mission in the Nineties and now the story is brought to the screen by Ben Affleck.
The rescue attempt seems convoluted and implausible but when we witness the brainstorming session in the Pentagon, we learn that there are extremely limited options for disguises. With so few Westerners residing in Iran at the time, disguising the embassy staff as teachers or charity workers was impossible. The original plan – “The Bicycle Option” – proposed that they smuggle in bicycles for everyone and escape via a three hundred mile trek through the Iranian winter. In the end, the CIA opted to go for “The Hollywood Option.”
Enter CIA agent Tony Mendes who not only comes up with the plan, he creates a fake Hollywood film project with the help of his friend John Chambers, a Hollywood make up artist, and then lead the escape mission himself in Tehran. What a guy.
Argo is an exciting and taut thriller that Ben Affleck has skillfully produced with an impeccable sense of pace, tone and economy. There is little wasted motion as the film opens with a stage-setting narration of the Iranian revolution followed by a breath-taking recreation of the embassy raid. From there we understand exactly what the stakes are, that the clock is ticking and that a rickety half-baked plan is all that stands between rescue and public execution.
Affleck is very matter-of-fact and clinical in his portrayal of the events that unfold. The introductory narration does not shy away from mentioning how the West supported a coup d’etat in Iran which destabilized the region but he also doesn’t downplay the barbarism of the revolutionaries either.
Argo maintains a sharp focus on the plight of the escapees and the CIA officers in America who are working to save them but the few scene-setting cut aways are interesting as they draw on some comparisons and differences between the Iranians and the Americans. There is footage of American protestors reacting to the hostage crisis and as they burn Iranian flags and beat any dark skinned people unfortunate enough to cross their paths, they don’t appear too dissimilar to the Iranians leading the raid. Likewise, for day to day Iranians going about their business, we see a shot of two women eating at their local Tehran KFC. Those are some of the similarities. The cold stark difference is most strikingly represented when Mendes arrives in Tehran and sees a man hung from a construction crane. That’s when we realize the gravity of the situation and how he is truly walking into the lion’s den.
This is a film with few frills, a low key musical score and no time for superfluous side stories. Affleck understands that the actual event is so incredible it sells itself. I enjoyed the casting of some great Hollywood character actors such as Bryan Cranston, Richard Kind and Phillip Baker Hall to play the suits in the CIA. You might not recognize the names but you’ll know the faces. Otherwise, they’ve wisely opted to cast unknowns for the hostages themselves who, during the closing credits, we find bear an uncanny resemblance to those involved in the real deal.
Argo is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller. It continues Ben Affleck’s amazing creative revival and renaissance in a new line of work. As that one recent episode of South Park observed, he is now an award winning writer, actor and director. It almost seems unfair. As for the real life Tony Mendes, someone in the film remarks that he will go down as one of the fifty all-time greatest CIA agents. Which begs the question: what incredible stories lie behind the actions of the other 49 agents?!