It’s a story that even Hollywood couldn’t have dreamed up. And yet the Hollywood dream machine was a major player in this daring rescue mission that occurred during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Argo, named after a science fiction movie, opens with a montage that explains the crisis, rapidly and amusingly covering the events—from Western support of Shah Pahlavi to the Islamic revolution and the supreme command of Ayatollah Khomeini—before opening with the militant invasion of the American embassy and the hair’s-breadth escape of six embassy workers who were offered sanctuary at the residence of the Canadian ambassador.
As Jimmy Carter proclaims in the background (the film incorporates real news footage), the embassy rampage “shocked the civilized world,” but in the corridors of power, the language is far less diplomatic, as agents and supervisors, such as Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), make satirical remarks about their own lack of preparedness (the script revels in pre-political-correctness bluntness). Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an “exfiltration expert” called in to help devise a plan to get the hostages out. Just as a workable scenario seems utterly hopeless—revolutionary guards are going door-to-door searching for the embassy escapees—Tony is inspired by watching late-night TV and concocts the idea to slip the “houseguests” out of the country under the guise of their being a science-fiction film crew. Because as everybody in the world knows, exotic deserts, like those of Iran, are the best locations for fantasy films.
And so Argo travels from the gallows humor of caught-with-its-pants-down Washington, D.C., to the outright farce of doing business in Hollywood, as Mendez (based on the real Tony Mendez) puts together a “real” fake film to fool the Iranians with. His first contact is special effects makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman). A real person with real ties to the CIA, Chambers suggests a once-powerful producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, playing a fictional composite more believable than the real characters). Something of a has-been, Siegel options the script for Argo with CIA money, but not before exposing Mendez to the cutthroat negotiations (hilariously satirized) that show Hollywood to be as thick with intrigue as any shadow regime. “You’re worried about Khomeini? Try the WGA,” Siegel deadpans, in one of a dozen or so terrific exchanges. (Goodman and Arkin may get Oscar nods for their comedic chops, and Cranston deserves one, too).
Because there is no other plan, ridiculous and dangerous Operation Argo gets the go-ahead. The embassy workers (whose personalities and circumstances needed to be more vivid) are not exactly gung-ho about it, though the Canadian ambassador (a very fine Victor Garber) is putting his life on the line. The film doesn’t go into (and doesn’t need to) the other hostage extraction attempt, by the U.S. military under Carter, which failed tragically. Solemn sequences based on photographs show street lynchings and the obsessive zeal of the militants to find the escaped Americans.
As a director, Affleck is generous to a fault, as his own performance is unvaryingly subdued; and there’s a sentimental coda that the film’s brash comedy and brisk politics could’ve done without. But what Affleck gets evocatively right is not just the unavoidable ’70s nostalgia, which he uses to good effect, but another memorable thing from the ’70s: the second Golden Age of Hollywood, when movies (Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation come first to mind) were expected to have as much sociopolitical value as entertainment value. This black-humor, real-life movie about a deadly serious fake movie has plenty of both.