The real "Mission: Impossible."
Going Rate: Worth full price
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Rated: R (but really could pass for PG-13)
Red Flags: Protest violence, language
At 8 years old, I was too young to fully understand the magnitude of the 1979-1980 Iran hostage crisis. I don't remember the iconic images of the captured Americans paraded around with blindfolds on. I barely remember my elementary school peers talking about it.
"What if the shah comes back?"
"Oh, they'll kill him if he comes back."
But I do remember the Ayatollah Khomeni. And I remember the yellow ribbons on the trees, on billboards, on windows, everywhere. The hostage crisis doomed President Carter's chances of re-election and gave President Reagan political capital to re-arm America. I have no doubt he would've bombed Iran if the standoff continued into his presidency. Tehran would have looked more like the Willcox Playa.
Nearly lost in the upheaval was a miracle: six American diplomats rescued from Tehran through an ingenious plan that required the cooperation of the CIA, the U.S. State Department, and the Canadian government. Argo is the story of how it came together, and although the movie takes copious dramatic liberties with the story, it plays like a caper film crossed with a spy thriller.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA "exfiltration" specialist who is brought in to advise on the increasingly hopeless mission of getting the six escapees from the American Embassy to the airport and out of Iran. They're hiding at the Canadian Ambassador's residence, and the clock is running. The revolutionaries are slowly deducing a few embassy employees are unaccounted for, ones they need for leverage, torture, or whatever.
Mendez is a quiet, analytical spook with a sense of responsibility and connections. The State Department kicks around several implausible cover stories for getting the six out -- like posing them as teachers or agricultural workers -- but he doesn't have any better ideas until he catches Planet Of The Apes on TV. Why not have the six pose as a film crew?
Mendez hooks up with an old Hollywood pal, monster makeup artist John Chambers (Goodman, perfectly cast), who's designed CIA disguises before. But this time, the government needs an entire film. Chambers leads him to director Lester Siegel (Arkin), who declares that even if he's making a fake film, he's gonna make a good one. The team settles on "Argo," a script for a Star Wars fantasy knock-off that has a middle-eastern vibe.
Watching Mendez and company set the film up is nearly as interesting as watching them pull off the ruse. We get a taste of Hollywood-insider dealing and press baiting. We also get to watch Mendez drop a cover on six government employees who have never done intelligence work and see if they can avoid blowing their cover, especially when they go out into a crowded bazaar for a location scout. We don't see a lot of shoot-em-up action. The film is content to work on us psychologically.
Argo, which Affleck also directed, doesn't throw a lot of personal sidebars at us. We know Mendez is living apart from his wife and son, and we learn a little about the six escapees, but nothing more. The film isn't interested in their lives as much as their anxiety over possibly losing them. It's simply too much information in the way of the mission, and the movie smartly avoids it.
As I mentioned, the real story of the so-called "Canadian Caper" is less dramatic than Argo portrays it, according to the Wired magazine article that inspired the script. The real story is of governments and agents making numerous secret moves to pave the way for the escape, which happens a lot easier than it should. The film adds a lot more tension and narrow escapes. But hey, if you're gonna make a movie about faking a movie, might as well go all the way.