That look. That probing, skeptical, disapproving look the TSA agent gives you at the airport as they look over your driver’s license and boarding pass. I have never had a single reason to be nervous in these exchanges — I’ve never tried to smuggle so much as a bottle of cough syrup onto an airplane — but they unsettle me every single time. And this is in the United States and I’ve done nothing wrong: imagine what it must feel like to walk through a security checkpoint in Iran, traveling under a forged passport under an assumed identity, in the midst of the worst hostage crisis in your nation’s history. If you’re caught, you’re dead, your friends are dead, and maybe every other hostage in the country is dead too.
The incredible true story in Ben Affleck‘s ‘Argo‘ took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s — but it plays to relatable modern fears, like our (or, at least, my) irrational terror of airport security.
It begins on November 4, 1979, when the American embassy in Iran was stormed, and its staff seized and held hostage by supporters of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. In recent weeks, American embassies all over the Middle East have been threatened and demonstrated against. Affleck couldn’t have predicted that when he chose this as his next project as director and star, but it loads that first scene with even more tension and resonance.
Six members of the embassy staff manage to escape and take refuge at the house of the Canadian ambassador, where they wait, in hiding, for the crisis to end. But neither country budges, and days turn to weeks. Meanwhile, the Ayatollah’s men are painstakingly reassembling the documents the Americans shredded as the building was seized sliver by tiny paper sliver. They could discover that some of the staff escaped at any moment, so after some 70 days, the CIA and the State Department scramble to figure out a way to secret the half dozen Americans out of the country while they still can.
That assignment eventually falls to master CIA “exfiltrator” Tony Mendez (Affleck). After eliminating any reasonable possibility, he hatches a daring and absurd plan: have the Americans pose as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a science-fiction film set on a desert planet with a vaguely Middle Eastern vibe (think ‘John Carter‘). His skeptical superiors (including a likably no-nonsense Bryan Cranston) give Mendez a tentative green light, and so he’s off to Hollywood to set up an elaborate cover story that involves the participation of a makeup artist (John Goodman) and a washed-up producer (Alan Arkin).
Affleck’s journey through the cutthroat world of Hollywood, where Mendez and company pretend to plunge into production on a discarded sci-fi script called “Argo,” is as dryly witty as scenes in the cutthroat world of post-Islamic Revolution Iran are unnervingly angry. Somehow the wild shift in tones works; the humor lightens the tension, and the tension enhances the laughter. Goodman and Arkin toss off sarcastic movie industry quips like champs (“The bullshit business,” Arkin smirks as he talks about his failed marriages, “it’s like coal mining; you come home to the wife and kids, you can’t wash it off”).
After several scenes of surreal comedy, it’s back to D.C. and then on to Iran, where Mendez rendezvous with the “houseguests,” as they’re called, and endeavors to get them home in one of the most successful sequences of long-form suspense in any movie of recent memory. Watching the scene of the diplomats working their way out of the country, facing various tests of their identity from those oh-so-fearsome airport security screeners (and these dudes really are worth getting worried about) words like “masterful” and “textbook example” come to mind: Affleck’s careful manipulation of the audience through imagery, music, editing and dialogue (and, in some cases, the deliberate lack of subtitles of dialogue in other languages) is brilliant. Even though the end result of Mendez’s mission is never really in doubt, Affleck still manages to turn the last act into an insanely involving espionage thriller through sheer filmmaking brio.
If you’re so inclined, you can read the story from Wired Magazine by Joshuah Bearman that revealed Mendez and the CIA’s long-classified role in the Americans’ flight from Iran (for decades, Canada was given full credit for the affair in order to minimize international tensions). If you do, you’ll see that the real story, fantastical as it is, is a lot less dramatic than the version Affleck tells here. Most of the details that seem implausible feel that way for a reason: Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio made them up. Which is fine. Whether it’s largely authentic or largely fabricated, ‘Argo’ is also largely suspenseful as hell. Who cares whether they invented some of it? That’s why they call it the bullshit business.‘Argo’ hits theaters Friday, October 12.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’