Film review: Argo works as thrill ride, but retains human drama

Rated R for language and some violent images

Argo opens with a brief, narrated prologue on American-Iranian relations in the mid-20th century. A 1953 coup d’état backed by the United States and Britain kept Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a secular Muslim monarch, in power until he was overthrown by Islamic revolutionists in early 1979. Exiled from Iran, the shah spent months seeking refuge in others countries until, terminally ill, he was allowed into the U.S. in October for medical treatment.

On Nov. 4, Islamist students and militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, demanding the shah’s return for trial and execution. They took as hostages 52 American workers at the embassy and began a 444-day standoff, as President Jimmy Carter refused to yield to blackmail.

In Argo, Ben Affleck (l) plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who helped six American Embassy workers to avoid capture and escape from Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis. PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES

On screen, we see archival news footage of the events, and then a vivid re-enactment of something unreported at the time: Six embassy staffers manage to evade capture, leave the building and find shelter in the home of the Canadian ambassador. For the next two months, the U.S. State Department scrambles for a way to rescue them in secret, and thus avoid jeopardizing the safety of the 52 hostages.

Enter CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (portrayed by Ben Affleck). An expert at rescuing agents from enemy territory, Mendez pushes for an elaborate operation. He’ll go to Iran, posing as a movie producer from Canada scouting locations for a cheesy Star Wars rip-off. Once there, he’ll train the six fugitives to pose as a Canadian film crew and smuggle them out of the country using fake passports. Or they may all die trying.

Yes, it’s outlandish and a terrible risk. But U.S. officials soon see it as their “best bad idea,” and authorize Mendez to enlist the aid of two film industry pros: John Chambers (John Goodman), a makeup artist who’s assisted the CIA before by providing disguises, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), an aging Hollywood mogul. (Editor’s note: Like Mendez, Chambers is a real person, honored by the CIA prior to his death in 2001; Siegel is a fictional composite character).

Siegel and Chambers pull together a production company, shooting script, storyboards and posters for their faux sci-fi epic, called Argo. (Does their choice of title suggest parallels between Mendez’s mission and Jason saving the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology? Maybe, but that’s never commented on.) The team even holds a pre-production junket for entertainment reporters because, Siegel says, “If you want to sell a lie, you get the press to sell it for you.”

The flippancy of that remark contrasts sharply with the crisis at hand—scenes of the media circus for the fake movie are intercut with shots of the hostages at the embassy, subjected to beatings and threats of execution. And as viewers, we feel an uneasy balance between the thrill of watching a historical spy story unfold and our awareness that real lives are involved.

Mr. Affleck, who also directed the film, plays on that tension throughout. Arriving in Iran, Mendez convinces the six to trust him (what choice do they have, really?) and quickly learn their “roles” in the scheme. The final minutes, when they face airport security before boarding a Swiss Air flight to freedom, are tremendously suspenseful.

Beyond the prologue, Argo—based on accounts published after the operation was “declassified” by the Clinton administration in 1997—spends no time dealing with U.S. political entanglements in the Middle East, and some may feel that’s a wasted opportunity, given recent news headlines. But though marred by frequent profane language, it is a rare thriller that never loses sight of the humanity at its core. That’s worth the price of admission.


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Bill Fentum, Former UMR Associate Editor

Bill Fentum

Bill Fentum was a dedicated employee of The United Methodist Reporter from 1985 to 2013, serving as the associate editor. Bill continues his work in journalism in a variety of positions as an independent journalist.

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