Iran, even in all its unrest, enjoys a good movie. Or the prospect of a good movie. When CIA operative Tony Mendez brings the script of a hammy Star Wars rip off to the Turkish and Iranian consulates, the only reason they don’t call the men in blue is because deep down, they want a movie to be filmed on their soil. And so Tony enters the country with a flimsy plan, but because the locals have gone movie crazy, he’s able to slip past and between them like a wraith in the night.
The script he brings is called “Argo” — “It’s the ship. It’s the thing. It flies all around space.” — and Iran makes the perfect setting because it’s Oriental and it’s home to vast deserts and barren land. Tony’s best bad plan is to enter the country posing as a Canadian film crew and exit with six American embassy refugees, who have had to keep a low profile in the Canadian ambassador’s house for risk of getting shot by disgruntled Iranians in the midst of the 1980 hostage crisis. This “exfiltration” really happened. Tony really went in, and he really came out with all six people. The world never knew about it because the CIA likes to keep things clandestine.
Tony’s played by Ben Affleck, who also directed the movie, and he’s a man of few words. His greatest asset is his responsibility, for when the big guns of the US government decide to trash the Argo operation in favour of the usual military strike, he goes against his orders. His job is a sad one, and Affleck plays him as a man who knows this but cannot express it. He has to remain calm and steely — “This is what I do.”. When he leaves for Iran, there is no send off party, no friends and loved ones to wish him a safe return. He is most likely going to his death, and he does it alone. If he gets caught or killed, the CIA disavows him. If he succeeds, no one will know.
The lighter side of the movie comes from, well, the movies. Alan Arkin and John Goodman play a couple of movie people — a producer and a make up specialist — whose services are needed to fund and promote “Argo”. They base themselves in Los Angeles and provide many of the movie’s funny moments. There’s a scene where the Goodman character, John Chambers, sits Tony down and warns him of Hollywood’s deceit. And Arkin displays his prowess by masterfully hassling a bullshit script from a stuck up Richard Kind. The years of experience in Hollywood never go to waste.
Most of their scenes are intercut with some really intense sequences in Iran, where tensions build rapidly and the chances of the crew’s escape shrink with every minute they waste arguing. While Tony prepares his rescuees, the Iranian militia struggles to locate them, using poor kids to piece together strips of shredded information files. The hunt escalates and climaxes at the airport. There’s a sensational chase scene where a bunch of army trucks and police cars try to run a jumbo plane off the runway. I’m not sure how the control tower doesn’t see them. And there’s an even more sensational scene that involves mind games and an impatient walk across a film set to a ringing telephone. All this is expertly edited by William Goldenberg, who understands what is needed to turn a real story into a Hollywood thriller epic.
But what Argo is really good at is sidestepping glorification. Who do we have to thank for the success of this operation? Tony? The CIA? Canada? Hollywood? All? Heck, I don’t know, and I’d rather not know. The movies provide the cover. The CIA provides Tony. Tony provides the operation. And Canada provides the shelter and cooperation. Now pool your resources and turn the “Argo” script into a real movie.
Best Moment | Plenty. I enjoyed many of the close calls. And the interrogation scene at the airport is very cleverly handled. The interrogator can obviously speak fluent English, but he taunts the crew by yelling in Farsi. Genius. And yes, Alan Arkin is wonderful.
Worst Moment | Why did they have to turn “Argo fuck yourself” into a catchphrase? It would’ve been so much sharper had they left it at the script readout.