In 1979, six Americans narrowly escaped when the American embassy in Iran was infiltrated and dozens of hostages were taken. A CIA specialist named Robert Mendez came up with an outlandish idea for extracting the six and returning them safely to the United States. Posing as the producer of a Z-grade science-fiction movie, Mendez flew to Iran, met up with the escapees, and gave them new identities as members of a Canadian film crew, hoping this cover story would be enough to get them all past the guards at the airport.
Prior to seeing “Argo”, I knew about the Iranian hostage crisis that had embarrassed the Carter administration (and probably cost President Carter a second term in office). But I'd never heard of this aspect of the story. It's a wonder it took more than 30 years to make it to the big screen, given its inherent cinematic qualities and its relevance to current events, particularly the revolutionary movements that have swept the Middle East in the past few years.
An even bigger surprise is that the film was directed by Ben Affleck. After appearing in a series of stinkers in the early 2000s (most infamously in “Gigli”), the actor had pretty much been written off by audiences and critics; his career seemed to have taken a backseat to constant tabloid coverage of his personal life. He reemerged as the director of “Gone Baby Gone” (2007) and “The Town” (2010), two tough Boston-set thrillers. Both were flat-out great. Now, with the Oscar-nominated “Argo”, Affleck has officially reinvent himself as one of Hollywood's top directors.
The movie's stranger-than-fiction tale merges Middle Eastern politics with Hollywood filmmaking. Affleck establishes this unlikely mix with a perfectly conceptualized prologue made up entirely of storyboard drawings. The prologue gives us needed background information about what led to this particular moment in history between our two countries. Affleck continues to make all the right choices. The powerful scene depicting the takeover of the embassy makes you feel like you're right there with the escapees. The director has nailed the period details, right down to the glasses and hairstyles people were wearing, making it easier to get lost in the story.
When Mendez (played by Affleck) is introduced and comes up with his idea for the cover story, the movie could have suffered from a jarring tonal switch, but it actually becomes more expansive and entertaining. Just two years before the story takes place, “Star Wars” had broken box office records, and rip-offs of George Lucas's space opera were ubiquitous. In that context, the cover story makes perfect sense, as Mendez claims to be producing a low-budget sci-fi movie and scouting for locations in a part of the world that doesn't look all that different from the desert-like planet Tatooine in “Star Wars”. Alan Arkin and John Goodman give hilarious, wonderfully satirical performances as the Hollywood veterans Mendez hires to set up a fake production company for the fake movie he's producing.
Page 2 of 2 - The details of the story (somewhat embellished by Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio) are frequently jaw-dropping and always cinematic. I was especially astonished by the scenes showing a roomful of Iranian children reassembling shredded documents that will reveal the identities of the escapees. Even if you know what happened, the climax is incredibly suspense, because of the way Affleck cross-cuts the action and packs it with so many nail-biting, last-minute reversals. He'd probably be on his way to winning an Oscar for best director if the Academy hadn't failed to nominate him. He's made a terrific, historically relevant movie that's also a lovely tribute to how imaginative thinking can bring about real change.
“Argo” is playing this weekend at the Augusta Historic Theatre, 523 State Street. Showtime is 7:30pm on Saturday and 2pm on Sunday. Tickets are $6.
Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He thinks “Argo” will win this year's Oscar for best picture. He lives in Wichita.