I wasn’t around for the Iranian hostage embassy, but having been a history major, I knew a scant amount about what happened overall; the Canadian Caper, as the episode the film Argo is based around, was much less-known to me. Although Ben Affleck has appeared in two of my favorite films of all time (Good Will Hunting and Field of Dreams), I’ve never been a huge fan of his acting ability, and I hadn’t seen any films he’d directed. Fortunately, Argo provides an excellent vessel for him to display his talents, which I’ll admit I underrated.
November 4, 1979 – Iranians, fueled by their hatred of the Western-backed Shah, storm the American embassy and take 66 hostages (14 were later released, leaving the final number at 52). What they fail to initially realize is that six Americans escaped and have sought refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
Fast forward to late January. The six are still in Taylor’s home, afraid to go outside for fear of being spotted. Meanwhile, inside the embassy, the Iranians make children and the elderly work to assemble the classified documents that were shredded so they can identify their hostages. When the United States realizes they will quickly discover six people are missing, they move into action. Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler), the Chief of Staff, commissions the State Department to put together a rescue operation, with the CIA overseeing the plan. Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) brings in his top operations officer, Tony Mendez (Affleck), who specializes in disguises and exfiltration.
When Mendez realizes the State’s plan is doomed to failure, he quickly scrambles to find a new plan. While talking with his son on the phone, he comes up with the idea of presenting the hostages as part of a film crew for a new science fiction film called Argo. When his plan gets the greenlight, he has to work to make his plan seem, for the sake of appearance to Iran, like a legitimate movie.
To do this, he recruits John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood veteran makeup artist, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a financial backer. Together, they pick out a script, set up a fake office, print out business cards and posters, have an artist draw up storyboards, and even have actors go through a script reading. Working with the Canadian government, Tony gets them to print out six false Canadian passports for the six hostages. Documents in tow, Mendez heads first to Istanbul, then into Iran.
It should be noted that for a film set in such a suspenseful environment, there’s surprisingly little violence in the film. There’s not a lot of gratuitous violence, but Argo is a superlative example that one does not need violence and gore to make a tense film. The first half of the film progresses slowly and then quickly builds up to the crescendo of the attempted rescue.
Drawing upon actual news and film footage of the event, Affleck does an excellent job of giving the film the feel of the era. Clothes, haircuts, ridiculous facial hair; it’s all here. Even the look of the film is vintage. Wanting the film to look like it was from the era, Affleck shot the movie on regular film, cut it in half, then blew up the remainder so it’d look grainy.
The result is a film that can truly suck the audience in. Affleck gives an excellent performance as Mendez, an experienced operative attempting a new trick. Cranston does a tremendous job of portraying both the bemused calm of both Hal from “Malcolm in the Middle” and the brooding menace of Walter White when appropriate. Goodman manages to steal every scene he’s in, as he tends to do.
As the film’s only based on the actual events and not a documentary, the main nitpick I have is a minor one. If there’s one part I wish Affleck could have emphasized more, it would be the role the Canadian government played in assisting Mendez and the CIA. In addition to providing the passports as well as the Canadian ambassador opening his home up, cooperation with the Canadian government went well beyond the logistics of paperwork. Taylor especially was invaluable to the effort, and he was rewarded by being appointed to the Order of Canada as well as receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. Canada was so integral, in fact, that the whole ordeal is known as the Canadian Caper. In the film, though, apart from the passports and Taylor’s home being used, the efforts of our northern neighbors is mostly ignored. There are other times they took some creative license to speed up the pace (the six hostages actually started at five, and they drifted from place to place the first week, the ending is a bit more exciting than what actually took place, etc.), but they don’t detract from the film.
Tense, at times hilarious, and fast-paced, I can’t fully emphasize how well Argo was put together. Glancing to my left at times, I noticed my friend Krisden practically biting down on her knuckles from scene to scene. Looking to my right, I noticed my friend Kat tearing up a bit at the end of the film. Not knowing much about the background of the film, they, as well as Katie, left the theaters almost in awe at what they’d just seen. Argo immediately jumped to the top of the list of films I’ve seen thus far this year, not only because of its superlative quality, but because it also accomplishes the near-impossible task of making an entertaining film educational, giving our generation a glimpse, if only brief, of the history that dictated the generations before us.
Argo gets an A.