The “ugly American” case against 2012’s Argois very obvious to make. The film takes the story of the Iranian hostage crisis, one of America’s greatest embarrassments, and makes a movie on just about the only aspect of it that turned out well for America (even though a large chunk of the credit should go to Canada). Following a prologue that lays out the history of the 1954 Massadagh coup, the film spends the rest of its running time treating the CIA as an unalloyed force for good in the world.
And not only that, but it gives Hollywood a huge role in that victory. Of course, the film fudged a lot of details to make the story more exciting. And it even cast a white actor to play a guy named Tony Mendez.
All of that is true. But Argo is still a wonderfully mounted, wildly entertaining film, very much deserving of the accolades it earned, including its Oscars. And when it comes to prestige movies from the 2012 awards season that whitewashed the CIA, Argo had nothing on Zero Dark Thirty.
It’s also remarkable that Ben Affleck, who was no less than a laughingstock just a couple of years earlier, starred in and directed a movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Argo takes the bare bones of real events and turns them into a first-rate thriller: On the day in 1979 when Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy, six staffers managed to escape the complex and ended up at the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor (played by Victor Garber, although his character represents several people at once).
Back in the U.S., the CIA knows they can’t stay there for long and weigh their options. Tony Mendez (Affleck), an exfiltration expert, comes up with a crazy plan: They will pretend the six Americans are a Canadian TV crew, scouting out locations in Iran for a sci-fi movie called Argo. For this, they enlist the services of Hollywood makeup artist and sometime CIA asset John Chambers (John Goodman) and loudmouthed veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).
It’s a race against time, and later a race against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, to get the Americans out of Iran. The film’s climax is wildly embellished — in reality, there was no chase scene, and in fact, the Americans never really came close to getting caught.
Great Cast and Fascinating History
Part of what makes the film work is the outstanding cast. Bryan Cranston, then near the end of his Breaking Bad run, gives a fine supporting turn as Mendez’s handler. And everywhere you look, there’s a great character actor in a bit part: Željko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Philip Baker Hall, Kyle Chandler, Richard Kind. And as for the Americans hidden in the ambassador’s home, Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bische were so believable as a married couple that they did so again a couple of years later on Halt and Catch Fire.
Part of what’s so fascinating about Argo is that this story was kept hidden for a long time. Publicly, it was known as the “Canadian Caper,” Canada got all the public credit, and the CIA’s role was kept hidden until the late ’90s. The film acknowledges all this and even has the characters discuss it, but here they are, in a movie that foregrounds the CIA’s involvement.
All that said, Argo remains a fantastic film and the apex of one of Ben Affleck’s many comebacks.
You can stream Argo on HBO Max.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.