In November of 1979, a number of Iranian citizens invaded the American embassy and took a number of its workers hostage. The Iranians were unhappy that the United States had granted asylum to their recently-deposed Shah, and very much wanted him back so they could put him on trial and then put him to death. I had just turned two years old at the time of the invasion, and was about three and a half by the time it ended so these events aren’t exactly burned into my memory, but it was nevertheless one of the more significant events in twentieth century America so over the years I have acquired at least a passing knowledge of the ordeal.
But one of the details of this event that had previously escaped my notice is that six Americans had managed to escape the embassy when it first fell under attack. This was a mixed blessing, since Americans were very hated by a lot of people in Iran, and especially those working for the government, so they weren’t going to be able to just walk out of the country, and they were even turned away at a number of other foreign embassies before they were finally taken in by the Canadian ambassador at his private residence. But while they had escaped the immediate danger at the American embassy, they actually ended up in much greater danger because while Iranian rebels were being closely watched by the rest of the world over their treatment of their embassy hostages, if these six refugees were discovered they could be dealt with in a much more quiet and much less pleasant manner. So it became a very urgent matter to get them out of the country, at a time in which the Iranian government would do almost anything in its power to prevent it.
And this is where CIA agent Tony Mendez entered the picture. He specialized in getting people out of these kinds of situations, so he was brought in to help come up with a plan to get them out. And with a complete lack of “good” options, they had to dip into the “so crazy they just might work” pile. And that’s where they found the idea to pass the six Americans off as a Canadian film crew scouting for locations for a science fiction movie with the need for alien landscapes that looked a lot like what you might find in the Middle East. Tony would pretend to be the film’s producer, and each of the six would have different roles like director, location scout, screenwriter, etc., but in order to be able to fool the Iranians, they’d also need to be able to fool the rest of the world, so it might as well be a real movie. And that’s how Argo, whose script had been rejected throughout Hollywood, got the green light.
Argo (the historical drama starring and directed by Ben Affleck, not the crappy sci-fi movie within the movie) tells an incredible story that simply has to be true because there’s no way anyone would believe it if it were fiction. While it maintains a relatively slow pacing, it somehow manages to really amp up the tension while simultaneously slipping in a decent amount of comedy and history. And while there are other big-name actors like John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Bryan Cranston, the roles of the hostages are handed off to lesser-known character actors (albeit the kind with faces that you know you’ve seen somewhere before) and they help carry the film.
It’s an extremely entertaining film with a story that is both enjoyable and historically important, but one of the things I found most surprising is the attention to detail. They make use of actual TV footage from the real crisis, and in the closing credits we can see side-by-side pictures comparing the real players and events with the actors and settings created for the movie and the similarities are impressive. It’s clear that Affleck (who is now three-for-three as a director, with The Town and Gone Baby Gone) really did his homework and put a high premium on authenticity. Although the film could have perhaps spent a little more time getting the audience familiar with the political turmoil before jumping into the action, almost everything else works perfectly and Affleck’s Argo is one of the best films to come out of Hollywood this year.