Out of Iran

'Argo' is a great film—and it's based on an incredible yet true tale

When spies are involved, the truth is very often stranger than fiction.

Long before he created the world's best-known secret agent, 007 author Ian Fleming was a real one, and his idea to drop a corpse carrying phony war plans off the Spanish coast deceived the Nazis and helped the Allies turn the tide against Hitler. That slice of history became the film The Man Who Never Was in the mid-1950s, but when all the files were declassified, British author Ben Macintyre put all the pieces together in his exceptional (and thoroughly detailed) 2010 book, Operation Mincemeat. The full story is richer, more complex and harder to believe, and we're better for knowing it.

It's much the same with Argo. For decades, very few people knew the real story, but then information related to these events of 1979 was declassified. Writer Joshuah Bearman picked up the scent, and his feature, pulling back the curtain on a remarkable covert operation, was published in Wired in 2007.

Here's the lowdown: On the day more than 50 Americans were taken hostage inside our embassy in Iran, six others escaped and found refuge in the house of the Canadian ambassador. Since the Iranians would figure out sooner or later that some Americans were missing from the embassy staff, the State Department had to think and work fast. How would the U.S. government get them out without Ayatollah Khomeini noticing?

Bikes were suggested, without thinking of how bad of an idea it would be to ask six foreigners to ride 300 miles toward the Turkish border in an incredibly hostile nation. Someone offered to make fake credentials for the stowaway six, recasting them as Canadian agriculture officers surveying crops. However, November is not exactly the ideal time to go crop-surveying in Iran.

CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) has another idea. Knowing that motion-picture studios regularly set up shop in the Middle East to find suitable locations for science-fiction epics, he sells the intelligence community on propping up a phony movie and masquerading the refugees as a film-production crew.

To make it more legitimate, Mendez reaches out to CIA contractor John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood makeup artist who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes. He hires a producer (Alan Arkin) to get some press for the new movie nobody ever intends to make, just to add to the illusion. Then Mendez goes from Istanbul to Tehran posing as a film-producer, planning to walk the six Americans around town for a couple of days as his production crew before attempting an escape.

The fake film was called Argo, hence the name of the real film, which Affleck directs. And now there's no question that Ben Affleck is a full-fledged filmmaker. Yes, Gone Baby Gone and The Town are both good pictures, but they could have been farmed out to a number of directors capable of producing similar results. Argo, on the other hand, has a genuine vision, and it's got to be Affleck's vision. The craftsmanship, too—which is impossible to ignore—is also his.

The tone of this film changes subtly as it bounces around three parallel absurdities—the Islamic revolution in Iran, the intelligence community in Washington, D.C., and the unreality that permeates Tinseltown. They're all essential notes, each complementing the others, because Argo is as much about the means as it is the ends. Affleck moves things effortlessly from intensity to humor, leaning on Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston to provide some levity in a film that needs to have it. Conversely, he turns to largely unheralded actors as the six refugees, and that helps sell their plight even more.

The three pillars of the story all have their strengths, but Argo is at its best with the sextet of Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé onscreen. They are not big stars (although Donovan and DuVall have some name recognition), but their contribution as a group can't be overlooked. Logically, these actors are the emotional center of the film, and because they're hardly unified when it comes to handling their predicament, it makes them more than just token helpless victims waiting for a shining hero.

Argo does more than just capture the intensity of the situation: The sights and sounds of 1979 have all come out to play as well—cigarettes in the office and on planes, Rolling Stones album cuts and, oh, that hair. At first, it generates some slightly embarrassed smiles from anyone old enough to remember the era, but the overall effect is just another grounding influence on Argo.

This is a great film, Gigli fans. We don't have Ben Affleck to kick around anymore.

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