Can you name a movie about a heroic, real-life spy story set anytime after World War II?
Even in the case of World War II stories, can you name one where the heroes are American instead of British?
I can’t, not of the top of my head, and I’m an espionage buff.
Part of the reason is inherent to the intelligence profession. While the CIA’s failures can be famous (the Bay of Pigs, for example), its successes must remain secret.
Another reason is cultural. Ever since the Vietnam War, most spy stories have depicted the CIA as sinister, even the Jason Bourne series where the hero is a CIA operative.
All this makes “Argo,” directed by and starring Ben Affleck, a rare film. The good guys work for the CIA, and the story is mostly true.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration specialist,” who rescued six members of the American embassy staff in Tehran following the Iranian revolution of 1979. When mobs stormed the embassy, taking 52 Americans hostages, these six escaped and found refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence.
“Argo” reveals how they remain hidden there for months while the U.S. State Department and the CIA try to hatch a scheme to get them out of the country before the Iranians discover their whereabouts.
Initially the State Department wants the six Americans to ride bicycles to the Turkish border, but Mendez shoots that idea down. “What if one of them gets a flat tire?”
Mendez comes up with an outlandish scheme where the Americans will pose as members of a film crew scouting locations for a low-budget science fiction movie, “Argo.” He soon realizes that cover story won’t hold up without a genuine movie to back it up. What if an Iranian official makes a call and learns no studio is currently making a film named “Argo”?
Mendez has a Hollywood contact, makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), famous for creating the characters in “Planet of the Apes.” Chambers steers Mendez toward producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). A fictitious character, Siegel is derived from such flamboyant schlockmeisters as Samuel Z. Arkoff.
Siegel puts “Argo” into preproduction, and Mendez leaves for Tehran to teach the “house guests,” as the CIA calls them, how to act like film crew veterans.
Everyone acknowledges that Mendez’s plan is risky. “This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far,” Mendez’s superior (Bryan Cranston) says to a member of the Carter administration.
Working from a script credited to Chris Terrio, Affleck ably captures the period details and recreates the atmosphere of 1979 going into 1980. He shows the feathered hair, big eyeglasses and ugly cars. He also shows the anger and frustration felt in this country that some upstart nation could hold 52 of our citizens hostage.
A willing student of the era, Affleck uses “All the President’s Men” as a template for early portions of the story. CIA headquarters becomes the Washington Post’s newsroom, and Affleck and Cranston are the intelligence world’s Woodward and Bernstein, doggedly pursuing a goal that seems impossible.
When the action moves to Hollywood, Affleck injects a welcome dose of humor and satire, including one double whammy of an inside joke. “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day,” Arkin says to Affleck, the actor turned director who has endured many such taunts.
“The Town,” Affleck’s 2010 drama about armored car robbers, should have erased any doubts about his directing ability. “Argo” will silence anyone still skeptical. Affleck convincingly transports the audience back to recent history, and he ratchets up the tension once Mendez arrives in Tehran.
If Affleck commits any sin, it’s that he doesn’t know when to stop building suspense. The sheer number of things that go wrong for the “house guests” during their final day in Tehran seems too bad to be true. According to Mendez’s recently published book on the affair, most of these last-minute developments are not true.
Through these events, Affleck shows a fondness for Hitchcock-style tension, but he overplays his hand.
Alfred Hitchcock’s famous example for building suspense was to show two characters seated at a restaurant table, then to reveal a time bomb ticking beneath the table. What Affleck does in the climax to “Argo” is to reveal a second bomb under the table, bombs under the characters’ chairs, a bomb in the kitchen and a bomb in the restaurant across the street. The situation almost becomes a parody of suspense films.
Affleck’s performance is trickier to assess than his direction. His Mendez hides his emotions to the point that he barely seems awake. This may be a true-to-life portrayal of Mendez’s personality, but it doesn’t make him a compelling hero for a feature film.
The supporting cast provides most of the energy and humor, particularly Goodman and Arkin. Victor Garber plays the brave Canadian ambassador, who risked his own life as well as those of his wife and his staff, to hide the Americans. Rory Cochrane and Clea Du Vall play two of the “house guests.”
While I’m not buying into the early Oscar hype for “Argo,” it is a gripping and exciting story that is mostly true and mostly authentic. “Argo” has taken on added significance with the recent riots outside of American embassies in the Middle East and northern Africa and the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. History has a way of becoming a chilling reflection of the present.