It’s a great, true adventure story that, in large part, was kept under classified wraps for decades.
In the suspenseful Argo, six Americans slip out of the back door of the American embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. Their co-workers aren’t so lucky. Captured by Islamic student militants, 52 of them are held hostage for 14 months.
Following Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and a national referendum that led to the creation of an Islamic republic, the formerly exiled Ayatollah Khoeini became the nation’s supreme spiritual leader. In November, thousands of enraged students gathered outside of the gate of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They hated their recently exiled ruler, the Shah, and the American government that installed him.
After they stormed the embassy, the students held the Americans inside hostage, vowing to release them only if the Shah was returned to Iran for trial.
The six Americans who escaped found refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house. It was a brave, dangerous risk for Ken Taylor and his wife to take. Other Westerners had refused to provide sanctuary.
Ben Affleck, the actor, directs Argo and stars as its principal hero, a smart, daring CIA agent named Tony Mendez. The movie’s based on Mendez’s book, The Master of Disguise, and a Wired magazine article, “The Great Escape,” by Joshuah Bearman.
Argo most of all is a great-escape tale. Mendez develops an imaginative plan to extract the six embassy employees from a country that certainly was the most dangerous place for any American to be in 1979.
As tension and hopelessness grows among the hiding Americans in the Canadian ambassador’s house, Mendez rejects the bad plans concocted by the U.S. Department of State.
Mendez’s plan, inspired by a sci-fi movie he sees on TV, involves the production of a fake movie. Naturally, filmmakers scout for locations that serve as their stories’ backdrops. What if the fugitive Americans in Tehran were passed off as a Canadian film crew scouting exotic locations in Iran for a sci-fi fantasy-adventure?
Argo’s premise allows for satirical jabs at Hollywood. Alan Arkin plays a veteran producer, for instance, who’s finished in the movie business but still busy picking up lifetime achievement awards. In a movie otherwise loaded with drama and suspense, Arkin does a delightfully amusing turn as Hollywood archetype Lester Siegel.
John Goodman has fun, too, as master makeup artist John Chambers, Arkin’s partner in the CIA-backed production.
Affleck’s Mendez flies to Hollywood to see Chambers. “I need you to help me make a fake movie,” he says. Chambers tells the CIA agent he came to the right place.
Siegel, a crabby, seen-it-all kind of guy, is a harder sell.
“You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everyone lies for a living?” he asks Mendez and Chambers.
But Siegel agrees to join the scam, making a great contribution to the rescue of the six desperate Americans in Tehran. If anyone can make a convincing fake movie, it’s him.
“If you want to sell a lie,” Siegel explains to his new partners, “you get the press to sell it for you.”
Affleck, directing from a script by Chris Terrio, sells the movie’s satire and its edge-of-your seat drama in Tehran.
Argo also does an exacting job of establishing the story’s place and time. People smoke in offices, jamming cigarette butts in overstuffed ashtrays. Phones have cords and ear and mouth pieces. Mustaches and eyeglasses are huge. TVs are tubes in square boxes. And Iran’s Islamic republic hangs its enemies high from construction cranes in the streets.
Putting so many convincing elements together to tell this story about the Iranian hostage crisis helps take moviegoers there. This escape from Tehran, and trip to Hollywood, is gripping.
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