When Islamic militants seized control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, six members of the staff escaped and were allowed protection in the home of one Ken Taylor, Canadian Ambassador to Iran. This has popularly been referred to as The Canadian Caper due to the valiant efforts of the brave man who risked his own life and those of his loved ones to keep them hidden. However, it would only be a matter of time before they would be found and executed. The full disclosure recounting the extraction of these six US State Department personnel from Iran on January 28, 1980 was a closely held secret until the information was declassified in 1997.
Now it can be told how CIA ‘exfiltration’ specialist Tony Mendez concocted a risky plan to get them out of the country. He would enter Tehran as a Canadian movie producer interested in scouting locations for an upcoming Star Wars rip-off called “Argo”, collect the refugees, pass them off as his cinema crew at the airport, and subsequently fly out of Iran. It’s the “best bad idea” they have. Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 Wired article entitled “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran” was loosely adapted into the events portrayed here that recount the saga from Tony Mendez’s point of view.
When one hears period piece about a diplomatic crisis, the eyes are liable to glaze over. Argo is based on a true story of a political nature but it never feels like a history lesson. In presenting his implausible strategy to rescue them, there’s a constant tightly wound anxiety – that things could go wrong at any moment. Director Ben Affleck wisely gives us a brief primer detaining the underlying reasons for the Iranian Revolution and specifically the Iran hostage crisis. It’s just an intro, but it’s a an incredibly crucial step in helping the audience understand the dangerous political climate for Americans that remained in Iran. It lays the groundwork for the many agonizing situations depicted. When our 6 evacuees must ultimately leave their protective domicile and mix with the general public, there are moments of unbearable pressure. Likewise a minor scene where the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper is questioned at the gate of their home is relentlessly tense.
One wouldn’t think there would be much room for levity in a film of this nature, but the script finds the humor in such an outlandish deception. Before Mendez can even set foot in Iran, he must consult with two Hollywood experts to make his production seem legitimate. Lester Siegel (fictional) is a former OSS agent turned movie producer and John Chambers (real) is a veteran makeup wizard. As played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman respectively, the pair are inadvertently involved but essential. The details they address to make this fabrication seem real is fantastic. They provide a satirically light touch to the drama, but their necessity in creating a plausible ruse shouldn’t be underestimated. It reinforces the concept of how many people were important to the success of this plan.
Argo is a brilliantly realized blending of historical fact and Hollywood fun to form a fascinating re-telling of the past. The production design is impeccably recreated. From the clothes to the hairstyles to a child’s bedroom filled with toys and posters, the era is strikingly accomplished. That also goes a long way in recreating the unbelievable undertaking into a satisfying period piece. The final act lightly rewrites the truth in order to gain a more heart pounding finish. It doesn’t quite feel credible, but it’s certainly engrossing. Affleck keeps the tension throughout and wisely focuses on the critical situations our 6 refugees have to face. We truly comprehend what they experienced in a very real way and that’s what makes this docudrama so effective. This thriller doesn’t attempt to deeply get your emotions, but it does entertain, and extremely well I might add.