Most people know the story of the Iranian hostage crisis. In 1979, there was a lot of distrust and anger between the United States and Iran (funny how things never change). A bunch of Iranians took hold of the US embassy in Tehran and held all the inhabitants hostage for 444 days. That is the story that gets brushed over in US History classes toward the end of the year when the teacher is rushing to fit in everything.
However, there is another story. Six of the embassy workers managed to leave the building before it was fully taken over. They went to a couple other embassies seeking refuge before the Canadian ambassador took them in and kept them safe. Several months later, the CIA determined it was no longer for them to stay with the Canadian ambassador and started trying to come up with ways to extricate them. They had several bad ideas, such as sneaking them bikes and having them bike to the Turkish border (300 miles in the winter? Nope) or having them pose as teachers (all international schools had been closed). Fortunately, there was one creative thinker in the bunch, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs).
Mendez comes up with an idea so crazy that it just might work. He proposes that they come up with cover stories for the six. They will be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for an upcoming sci-fi fantasy adventure called Argo. They set up a production company in Los Angeles with the help of Academy Award-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and renowned producer Lester Siegal (Alan Arkin in a role that will surely get him at least an Oscar nomination). They get people to believe the film will actually happen, even going so far as hosting read-throughs so that Variety will report on it and they will have clippings to support their story. Once they have acceptable cover stories and manage to convince the State Department that this is their best bet, Mendez heads into Iran.
The first half of the film is devoted to setting up the fake film and establishing the cover identities. It is a fascinating look into how the CIA works with the State Department and various diplomats. Where the State Department has to be worried about relations with other countries and how their actions are perceived by the world, the CIA focuses solely on their mission. For a political thriller, the first half is relatively lighthearted. Arkin gives an amazing performance as the crotchety producer who treats the mission as if they were making an actual movie. “If I’m making a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit” is just one of the many gems he utters.
Once it gets to the halfway point of the film, it’s all action and intrigue. Even though the film is pretty much about them, the six “house guests” don’t play much of a role. The two most significant of the house guests, in my opinion, were the ones played by Clea DuVall (Heroes) and Tate Donovan (The O.C.) and that was really just because I like the actors. Victor Garber (Legally Blonde) plays the Canadian ambassador to Iran and does great with the minimal amount he’s given. The second half is full of twists and turns, culminating in an incredibly tense climax at the Tehran airport.
Affleck proved with his first two films (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) that he is excellent at directing films about Boston. Argo proves that he is excellent at making films, period. This easily could have turned into a three- to four-hour epic full of convoluted details. Rather than spending a lot of time at the beginning setting up the tension between the US and Iran and delving into the history surrounding that, Affleck has a very brief prologue giving just enough information that the viewer understands some of the basic causes. The pacing is incredibly tight, but does not skimp on the humor or action.
This is going to be a major player once the awards season starts heating up. It did extremely well at the Toronto Film Festival, coming in second in the People’s Choice category. This will likely be the film that garners Affleck his first Directing nomination. He might also get an acting nod, but the focus will likely be on his direction. Arkin is a strong contender for the Supporting Actor field and it’s almost a lock for Best Adapted Screenplay. There is always the chance that it will flame out early on, but its buzz thus far looks good for the future. Affleck has an amazing career in directing ahead of him and I can’t wait to see what he does next.