Argo is the third feature length film to be directed by Ben Affleck, who also plays the leading role. The film is both a tense hostage rescue drama and a comedy that gleefully mocks the machinery of Hollywood.
As indicated in its introduction, the film is based on real events. In 1979, the US embassy in Tehran was seized by a group of Islamist students and militants. This led to the Iran hostage crisis, during which 55 American citizens were held captive for over a year. Refusing to negotiate with terrorists, the US government began a military operation to rescue the hostages. The mission ended in failure. However, prior to these events, six American diplomats had managed to evade capture and escape the embassy, taking refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The CIA, with the cooperation of the Canadian government, embarked on an audacious campaign to rescue the six from Iran. The agency’s plan was to use a fake film production as cover to smuggle the diplomats out of the country. Argo is the story of that rescue mission.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who devises the radical rescue plan. Mendez contacts John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood prosthetics artist with contacts in the film business, to help put the fake film project together. The two men recruit veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to produce the film and all three set about finding a suitable script. Mendez stumbles across a screenplay entitled Argo, a science-fiction adventure in the vein of Star Wars, and decides that the story’s exotic setting offers a valid reason for a film crew to go location-hunting in Iran.
The action plays out much like a heist movie, with the first half devoted to the assembly of the key players and the second half to the execution of the plan. As with any good heist story, there are unexpected twists that threaten to unravel the carefully planned mission. Events also unfold that ratchet up the tension and the film builds to a suspenseful climax. Affleck has proven himself as a competent director with his previous films Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), the latter showcasing his flair for directing action. Here too Affleck has a command over the action set-pieces, particularly in the impressively staged Embassy siege at the start of the film. In spite of an underlying comedic tone in many scenes, the film succeeds in generating a credible sense of jeopardy for the characters during their attempt to escape.
Affleck is aided by Chris Terrio’s sharp script, which skilfully balances satirical comedy and suspenseful drama within a politically-charged setting. The film opens with a brief sequence explaining the political turmoil that led to the hostage situation in Iran. The inclusion of authentic period news footage in this introduction and throughout the film adds weight to the narrative. Wisely, the script avoids making overt political statements and attempts to be even-handed in its depiction of both sides. The barbarism of the Iranian Revolutionaries is evident but the American government is not without its unsympathetic side and various American officials seem at times to be more concerned with the political ramifications of their actions than for the lives of their citizens.
However, the most barbed statements in the film are actually aimed at Hollywood. Most of these come courtesy of the wonderfully sardonic Siegel, who is given most of the best lines. Referring to problems in obtaining the rights to shoot the script, he remarks “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA”, the WGA being, of course, the Writer’s Guild of America. However, the film’s comedic elements can occasionally create problematic shifts in tone. For example, one sequence features a script read-through with actors dressed in ridiculous costumes intercut with scenes featuring the hostages in Tehran being tortured by their captors. Ultimately, however, this is a forgivable misstep in an otherwise enjoyable film.