Argo Review

poster from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

I think Ben Affleck is a great director (and a pretty good actor, too, though not a lot of people seem to agree with me on that one), so I was excited for Argo. Argo is based on the memoirs of a CIA officer who engineered the rescue of several American embassy workers from the Canadian ambassador’s house during 1979 Iranian hostage crisis – a story that was only recently declassified and is almost too crazy to be true:

A CIA agent creates a fake science fiction movie as a cover to extract six escaped embassy workers out of hostile Iran.

My excitement was dampened a bit when a Toronto Film Festival reporter wrote an article about how some Canadians were so upset by the portrayal of Canadians that Ben Affleck actually changed one of the closing title cards, but now, having seen it, I can say that those people were overly sensitive and that Argo is terrific.

The movie begins with angry Iranian students storming the embassy in protest over America being the Great Satan that is harboring their sadistic dictator. Six workers escape out the back way: Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishe), and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane). They show up on the doorstep of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who takes them in and hides them from roving revolutionaries who’d love to slip a noose over their necks.

six hostages flee the embassy from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

Great Satan, coming through!

However, Argo isn’t a movie about the hostage crisis per se. Nor is it about the plight of the six Americans and how they were saved by a Canadian. Apart from a sequence where Iranians storm the embassy and a few later scenes to remind everyone the crisis is still going on, the movie largely skips over the hostage crisis and picks up 69 days later, when CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) are brought in to cook up a plan to rescue the six escapees.

Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

Okay, so, um, why did it take 69 days for us to be called in?

Tony’s sci-fi obsessed son gives him an idea: why not create a fake science fiction movie that needs to be filmed in bazaars and deserts like those found in Iran? Then he could go in and pluck them out of Iran by claiming that they were a Canadian film crew on a location scout. The movie they settle on is Argo, which is sort of a rip off of Star Wars and Dune.

the staff of the fake Studio 6 from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

JOHN: “The target audience would hate it.”
TONY: “What’s the target audience?”
JOHN: “People with eyes.”

In a sequence that yields too many hilarious quotes to be listed here, Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin) cook up fake posters, costumes, parties, events, articles, and even a production office to help convince the Iranians that this thing is real. They also use the embassy workers’ real personalities and backgrounds to match them with jobs on a film crew: director, writer, cameraman, production designer, and associate producer.

Tony briefs the six escapees on their roles from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

Lester says that you could teach a rhesus monkey to
be a director in a day, so that’s going to be you, Bob.

The CIA and the US government are understandably underwhelmed by this plan, because it seems so ludicrous. But since there are literally zero Canadians still in Iran for non-ludicrous reasons, and all of the other plans are even stupider, they pretty much have to go ahead with it.

US government meeting from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

I know: let’s give them bikes and meet them at the border… 300km away!

At this point the movie switches from being hilarious to being almost unbearably tense. Naturally there’s some resistance on the part of the embassy workers to placing their lives in the hands of a guy who came up with such an insane plan. The Iranians are also dangerously close to reassembling the shredded records detailing who works at the embassy, meaning they could be caught in a lie and killed.

housekeeper talks to a student revolutionary from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

Why no, there’s no one here but a Canadian film crew. Why do you ask?

Now, a lot of the things that Affleck uses to generate tension didn’t really happen, but I’m okay with that. I was on the edge of a tension-induced heart attack for the last third of the film, which is the way a thriller should be. If you want the facts, read a book. If you want the feeling, watch a movie.

interrogated at the airport from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

But we have this lovely poster! Of course we’re a film crew!

With the tweaks to the facts, Argo is very nearly a perfect movie. The only part that doesn’t really seem to fit is (ironically enough) the part that the angry Canadians made Ben Affleck change – the ending text burbs. There’s one about the mission being an enduring model of cooperation between Canada and the USA, but since the movie wasn’t about Canada and the USA trying to work together, it seemed out of place.

John Goodman from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

Why yes, this IS all thanks to Canada! How kind of you to ask.

The reason some Canadians (mostly those people who knew Ken Taylor) were upset about Argo was that it glossed over the parts of the rescue that Canada was responsible for and mentioned that Canada got all the “credit” for the rescue because the CIA part had to stay secret. But anyone watching the movie can see that Canada’s role was important.

Tony meets Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Argo

Hello, I’ve been feeding and housing your people at my own personal risk for 69 days.

Ken Taylor took the Americans in after they were turned away by everyone else. The Canadian government issued real passports for the six, and sacrificed its relations with Iran to hide the CIA involvement in the rescue (making it more like taking a hit than stealing credit). So just let me put it out there that I’m a Canadian and I’m not insulted by Argo. In fact, I think it’s awesome and that everyone should go see it.

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