If the first five minutes of Argo were shown in American high schools, we would not be talking about going to war with Iran. A quick scene-setting voice-over plainly lays out how the nationalization of oil resources by reformer Mohammed Mossadegh upset the United States, who backed a coup to install the brutal Reza Pahlavi as Shah. The Iranians rose up against the Shah, the U.S. allowed him in for medical treatment, and when student rioters took over the embassy in 1979, they demanded he be returned to them for justice.
The movie, based on a must-read Wired article by Joshuah Bearman, depicts the storming of the embassy, but leaves its hostages to tell the story of six lesser-known Americans, who escaped that day, hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador, and were eventually spirited out of Iran by CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed). Mendez disguised them as the director, screenwriter and scouting crew of the Star Wars rip-off Argo.
Thrilling from beginning to end, Argo is a redemption tale for bullshit artists from Hollywood to Langley. After the nail-biting embassy siege, the movie spends most of its first half shuttling between the worlds of espionage and Hollywood, as Mendez sells his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) on a plan developed with creature-feature makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), a real-life participant and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), an invented one. Both worlds are depicted caustically but affectionately; screenwriter William Goldman’s dictum “nobody knows anything” holds transcontinentally true. Goodman and Arkin are especially hilarious, and the movie could have been told from their standpoint alone and been a winner.
Once Mendez is in Iran, the six near-hostages come into light focus. The most characterized one is Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), who serves as a kind of foil (the movie wisely avoids installing an Iranian Big Bad, although there are plenty of dangerous Revolutionary Guards to avoid). He’s doubtful Mendez’s plan can work, but in a critical moment, tells the fake movie’s story in Farsi using the crew’s whipped-up comic-book-style storyboards, connecting it to universal tales of struggle and liberation that resonate with their audience. It’s the moment that ties together the spies’ and filmmakers’ deprecation of their worlds of bullshit — a celebration of invention that puts the movie into overdrive.
The late-1970’s stylings are note-perfect without being fussy; the script crackles with men-at-work aggressive banter. There is a bit more excitement invented than necessary — if you want to know exactly how long “the nick of time” is as a measurement, use the last third of Argo.
Argo‘s political message is disconcertingly sly. It starts out with a critical take but ends up with a redemptive one. It lays laudable cards on the table about the role of the U.S. in Iranian history, but it ultimately tells a story in which the C.I.A. are the good guys. To the movie’s credit, they’re very clearly surprised to find this out.