The 1979 Iranian hostage crisis is the basis for Ben Affleck’s Argo, and since its release on October 12, the film has generated a lot of discussion.
What’s important to note, however, is that the film does not focus on the 52 Americans who spent 14 months in captivity. Instead, it tells the true story of a CIA agent and a couple of Hollywood professionals who concocted a far-out plot to free six Americans who had found refuge in the Canadian embassy. Their existence had to remain a secret in order to protect Canada’s diplomatic status.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA specialist brought in for consultation by the State Department, who points out the fundamental weaknesses in all of the proposals for how to rescue the six captured Americans. However, Mendez is at a loss to suggest a viable alternative until he gets an idea while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV with his son: create a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a similar film.
Posing as a producer for the fictional sci-fi film Argo, Mendez journeys to Iran and meets up with the six escapees, providing them with Canadian passports and extensive information about their fake identities to help them pass through security at the airport. Although they are doubtful about Mendez’s scheme, they reluctantly agree to go along with it, knowing that Mendez is risking his own life too, and convinced that it is their only option.
The six were welcomed at the White House by President Jimmy Carter, and their return was a rare bright spot during a grim time when the nation worried that the hostages would be tried as spies and executed. The remaining 52 hostages were later freed on January 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. The Argo operation remained top secret until President Bill Clinton declassified it in 1997.
In addition to Affleck, the film stars John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Jewish actors Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, and Richard Kind. Argo, which is produced by Affleck, Grant Heslov, and George Clooney, is the third film that Affleck, an Oscar-winner for co-writing Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon, has directed. His first two, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, were both well-received and each copped Oscar nominations for supporting performances. But Argo is his most successful directorial effort yet, having received universally rave reviews and lots of Oscar buzz.
Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and called it “both spellbinding and surprisingly funny.” The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick also gave the film four stars, writing, “Affleck aces the tonal shifts so flawlessly that it’s surprising this is only his third movie as a director — if you didn’t know otherwise, you’d swear this was the work of a veteran master like Steven Soderbergh.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan went so far as to compare Affleck to Clint Eastwood, noting that the film is a throwback to a “brighter, earlier time, when Hollywood regularly turned out smart and engaging films that crackled with energy and purpose.”
Argo is a rare film that did not win the number one spot at the box office until its third week in release. As of last weekend, it has grossed just under $76 million domestically and is on track to well pass the $100 million mark.