In the excellent thriller ‘Argo,’ ordinary people face extraordinary pressures in revolutionary Iran

November 30, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 30, 2014

Argo, the 2012 movie directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is an excellent thriller based on the real-life rescue of six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran in 1980.

The movie quickly sets the stage for its story by having a narrator describe key political events in the history of 20th-century Iran. Essentially: In 1953, soon after Iran’s secular, democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalized Western-owned oil interests, the United States helped stage a coup and installed a friendly dictator. The new shah was Reza Pahlavi, whose modernization initiatives were undermined by his hoarding national wealth and his ordering or allowing the secret police to brutally oppress political enemies. In 1979, militant Islamic revolutionaries took control of Iran; the grievously ill shah traveled to America so he could simultaneously save himself from hanging and get treatment for his cancer.

This narration — delivered by Sheila Vand, who has a small but crucial role as a housekeeper named Sahar — brings us to Nov. 4, 1979. A crowd of angry Iranians have massed outside the gates of the U.S. embassy, and Americans trapped on the grounds slowly realize that local officials have no intention of dispersing the mob. Protesters breach first the compound walls and then the actual buildings, detaining more than 60 diplomats and other employees.

But six employees in what appears to be the visa branch evade captivity by slipping out a side exit. Unbeknownst to the Iranians, the sextet find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Because of the revolutionaries’ hostility toward the secular West, and especially all things American, they’re essentially trapped inside the residence.

Argo’s soft-spoken hero, a Central Intelligence Agency extraction specialist, enters the picture when the State Department asks him and his boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), to vet a plan for bringing these employees in from the cold. Tony Mendez (Affleck), who uses the cover name Kevin Harkins, objects to State’s hare-brained scheme to supply the Americans with bicycles and a map of back roads leading to the Turkish border.

More traditional extraction schemes — providing the refugees with fake credentials as English-language teachers or agricultural consultants — won’t work, either, because of Iran’s rejection of Western culture and because Iranians don’t do much farming during the wintertime.

Mendez eventually hits on the idea of using Hollywood’s, and the public’s, newfound mania for science fiction by creating a shell movie-production company that purports to be interested in shooting in exotic Iranian locations. Mendez and his allies — makeup specialist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (a scenery-chewing Alan Arkin), both genuine Hollywood types — option a script called Argo and begin preparing fake cover stories for the six diplomats.

Mendez works hard, first to make Argo seem like a legitimate production and then to convince federal bureaucrats that, as O’Donnell says, “This is the best bad idea we have.”

Once he arrives in Tehran, however, he finds that he has more work to do. Joe Stafford (the improbably named Scoot McNairy), an intelligent but cynical man who appears to be the only Farsi speaker among the refugees, believes that Mendez’s scheme is suicidal. But Mendez has already told Iranian authorities that he’s about to meet up with a crew of six Canadian moviemakers, so everyone must commit to the plan.

There are other obstacles, too. The Iranian cultural ministry sets up a location scout at an ancient bazaar, where the Caucasian diplomats attract unwanted attention. O’Donnell’s bosses get cold feet at the 11th hour and withdraw their support for the caper. And all the while, suspicious Iranian authorities are asking questions about the Canadian ambassador’s strangely timid guests, assembling shredded photographs from captured U.S. personnel records and determining why they have fewer hostages than people who worked at the American embassy.

Argo works, and works well (it won the 2012 Academy Award for best picture), because the movie slowly amps up the tension until viewers are on the edges of their seats — even if, as was the case with me, they know how the story ends. Mendez and his charges seem heroic not because they outsmart or outgun their enemies but because they comport themselves with as much grace as possible while being subjected to nearly unbearable pressure.

The script — Chris Terrio won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, working off Mendez’s book and a Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman — is finely tuned, and the cast play their parts to perfection. Credit is due not only to Affleck and Cranston but to Victor Garber and Page Leong, who play Ambassador Ken Taylor and Pat Taylor, and the six actors who portray the Taylors’ “houseguests”: McNairy as Joe Stafford, Kerry Bishé as Kathy Stafford, Clea DuVall as Cora Lijek, Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek, Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz and Tate Donovan as Bob Anders.

There are certainly some clichés in effect here. Mendez’s personal and professional crisis comes right on cue, before the taut third act, which features O’Donnell goading CIA and White House bureaucrats into action and then monitoring the results, by telephone, from half a world away (literally). Affleck and Terrio milk some suspense out of a crucial Tehran-to-Hollywood phone call, which Chambers and Siegel aren’t entirely prepared to field once they’ve been told that the operation has been nixed. There’s also a fairly ludicrous last-minute car chase.

Still, everything works pretty well, even the invented nonsense. And the narrative provides enjoyable closure for the salty Siegel, who gets to growl the film’s humorous trademark line (“Argo fuck yourself”), and for Mendez, who reunites with his wife and their roughly 10-year-old son. We also see the State Department honoring the houseguests and their courageous hosts, the Taylors, and are reminded (in text) that the Iranians freed their 52 American hostages after 444 days of captivity.

During the credits, Affleck places stills from the feature, the third he’s directed, alongside actual photographs of the real-life actors and events. This device serves both to remind the audience that they’ve seen a fictionalized account of historical events and to congratulate the filmmakers on casting actors and staging scenes that closely resemble the actual history, at least on a visual level.

The fidelity of Argo has been questioned, but I think the movie is praiseworthy on two accounts. First, it spins a good yarn and does so in enjoyable fashion. Second, for all its faults, it offers a more nuanced portrayal of Middle Eastern affairs than we’re accustomed to seeing from Hollywood. It’s possible for a viewer to appreciate the Iranian revolutionaries’ grievances with America while disagreeing with their oppressive religious vision, their violent methods and, of course, their terrible treatment of individual Americans.

In short, time spent watching Argo is time well spent, especially for those who enjoy espionage movies, dramas about ordinary people facing extraordinary situations or stories about 20th-century events.

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