EWN At The Movies - Argo

Andrea van Wyk Andrea van Wyk

Cast: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Tate Donovan, Victor Garber

Director: Ben Affleck

Rating:  Four star rating for film reviews.

November 4, 1979: The start of the 444-day long Iranian hostage crisis. Anti-American protestors in Tehran attack the United States embassy and take 52 staff members hostage. The crowd is demanding the return of their recently deposed and terminally-ill Shah, who was granted asylum in the U.S. by then-president Jimmy Carter. Six of the Americans manage to slip out during the chaos and hide out at the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor.  But there they are stuck, unable to leave the house for fear of being captured by the Revolutionary Guard, who is unaware that anyone had escaped the siege.

Argo is the incredible story of how the CIA created a fake science-fiction movie in order to rescue these six escapees. The thriller, directed by Ben Affleck (who also plays the lead role of Tony Mendez), is partly based on an article published in Wire magazine in 2007, titled The Great Escape and Mendez’s book The Master of Disguise. Mendez is the CIA’s best “exfil” or exfiltration agent – someone who specialises in the clandestine removal of personnel from under “enemy control” – and is called in to help.

While watching the film The Planet of the Apes, Mendez hatches a harebrained rescue plan to rescue his countrymen: he will travel to Iran under the guise scouting Tehran as the location of a science-fiction movie. He would use the opportunity to take false Canadian passports to the escapees (the Iranians accused all Americans of being spies and hell, what’s not to like about Canadians?). The hidden houseguests would then pretend to be the “film crew” and leave via the airport in this way. The operation, which was declassified by Bill Clinton in 1997, became known as the “Canadian Caper”.

Mendez enlists the help of his friend, Hollywood make-up technician John Chambers (played by John Goodman) – who in real life won an Oscar for his work on The Planet of the Apes – and veteran film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Within days they create a fictitious Hollywood production company. Every detail had to be perfect. The Iranians were sure to check the credentials of the “filmmakers” and there would be no second chances. The company picks up a real script for a sci-fi flick called Argo. They publish pre-production posters in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and even do a read-through with prospective cast members to lend the project some authenticity.

On 25 January the following year Mendez flies to Iran with false passports for the escapees, ink and paper to falsify visas, scripts and storyboards. The film becomes a race against time as the militants at the U.S. embassy in Tehran use dozens of children to re-assemble thousands of tiny pieces of shredded photographs, which would lead to the discovery that some Americans had escaped.

The film is not completely accurate to history. The six escapees hid out at two Canadian diplomats’ houses, film producer Siegel never existed and the screenplay has been heavily criticised for downplaying the role of the Canadian government in protecting and aiding the escapees. But, this is a Hollywood film and the opening credits do make it clear the story is only BASED on the truth.

The film is given a gritty sense of reality by using hand-held cameras while archive footage of the actual events is inserted. Affleck more than deserved his Golden Globe for Best Director, and it is mystifying that he was so glaringly overlooked for an Academy Award. As Mendez, he also shines, playing the role in a sincere and unpretentious manner (the sole shot of his ripped abdomen being the exception).

Affleck masterfully creates a narrative that is filled with suspense right from the opening scene to the rolling of the end credits. It kept me on the edge of my seat for two full hours. At the same time the movie is filled with dry humour to help relieve the tension, satirising the absurdity of the plot. Truth indeed is stranger than fiction. As Chambers tells Mendez when the latter first proposes the project: “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? … You’ll fit right in.” Argo is a gripping thriller and will keep movie-goers engaged far more than its competition for the Best Film Academy Award, Lincoln.

Andrea van Wyk is an Eyewitness News journalist.