Among many things that make the taut thriller “Argo” remarkable is this one: It depicts a 1980 rescue of American hostages from Iran yet begins by pointing out that the United States was partly responsible for the situation.
From the first sequence of this fast, frequently amusing nail-biter, we know we’re not in for a traditional story of crusading Americans and crazy Muslims. The film offers bitter food for thought at a time when the Middle East is going through yet another frantically incendiary period.
Many people will remember the 1980 crisis, in which supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. They may even know that six members of the legation escaped the onslaught, hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house and left Iran in an escape known as “The Canadian Caper.”
But how many of us realize the U.S. and Britain deposed democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and replaced him with the dictator (and infamous torturer) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi? When Iranians finally rose against this autocrat in 1979, America gave Pahlavi asylum. Much of the anti-American hatred at that point came from the opinion that we were harboring a criminal.
“Argo” steps into the story there. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) has been ordered by his boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), to perform an ex-fil (as in exfiltration) on the six in hiding.
Mendez rejects many cover stories – that they could be teachers, aid workers or agricultural experts – and has an idea: He will fly to Iran, posing as the producer of a science-fiction film titled “Argo” and pretending to scout desert locations. He’ll carry six false Canadian passports, then sneak the Americans home as his crew. (This really happened, though the Canadians don’t get full credit in the movie for all they did.)
Mendez knows Iranian authorities can’t be fooled merely by forged letters and business cards. So he enlists two producers, Lester Siegel and John Chambers (Alan Arkin and John Goodman), to create the fiction that a real film is under way. They buy a hack script, place ads in Variety, hold a public read-through and print up story boards.
Writer Chris Terrio, who makes his feature screenplay debut, takes us back and forth smoothly from the violent madness of life in Tehran to the entertaining lunacy of life in Hollywood. (Mendez, worried about the cover stories, asks Chambers if someone can really be taught to direct in one day. “A rhesus monkey can be taught to direct in one day,” Chambers replies.)
Affleck gets top billing but remains part of an unusually well-chosen ensemble. Many have been cast against type: Cranston, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Bob Gunton and others often play villains, psychos or other cinematic creeps, but all of them are on the right side here. At the same time, even the angry and suspicious Iranian characters aren’t demonized, and one becomes a quiet hero.
Affleck makes a strong impression as a concerned and absent father, but his real contribution comes behind the camera. “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” showed he was at home directing movies in Boston, where he grew up. “Argo” shows he can handle action and dialogue of a different kind, and his control over the pace of the movie – especially the alternation between the West Coast and Middle East – is so strong I’d now see anything he directs.
He and production designer Sharon Seymour work to get details right: not just mustaches and clothes and cars, but pop songs and eyeglasses and period footage from TV. (One mistake: The rundown “Hollywood” sign high in the hills looks like a mouthful of broken teeth, which it did until a 1978 restoration.) Those of us who lived through that era will remember, possibly with embarrassed smiles; those who did not will learn some of what they missed.