Making a drama out of a hostage crisis

The weirdest thing about Ben Affleck’s 70s-set thriller about escaping from Iran is that it’s (mostly) true.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture


Argo – ‘based on a declassified true story’ and directed by the film’s star, Ben Affleck – unfurls amid the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.

The recently ousted, Western-backed leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi has been reluctantly accepted into the US to undergo treatment for gallstones, causing outcry amongst the Iranian rebels. Storming the American embassy in the capital of Tehran, they threaten to execute the staff if Washington doesn’t return their former stooge to be put on trial for his corrupt, excessive and increasingly secularist regime. Unbeknownst to the rebels, six diplomats have managed to escape and are holding up at the house of the Canadian ambassador.

As the captors work frantically to reassemble the embassy records that were hastily shredded when the storming began, it is only a matter of time before the so-called ‘Canadian Six’ will be discovered missing. Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA operative and expert in ‘exfiltration’, comes up with an outlandish rescue plan.

Of course, the ‘based on a true story’ tag usually guarantees you about as much fidelity to the facts as a Newsnight report on child abuse, and this film in particular is likely to have you compiling a list of things to Google when you get home. But if you do take the time afterwards to read Tony Mendez’s lively account of the operation, you’ll be surprised to find that what seem like the most clanging contrivances are really all true, if a little zhuzhed up.

With the Iranians likely to be suspicious of any North Americans trying to leave the country, Mendez realises the usual ploys aren’t going to cut it. Catching a TV re-run of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, he comes to the conclusion that a bit of Hollywood glamour may just see them safely through airport check-in. Thus he decides to use the cover that they are a Canadian film crew, scouting locations for a new sci-fi adventure. Enlisting the help of Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) – known for his work on the Planet of the Apes series – he finds a script (‘Argo’), opens a phony production company, and even holds a lavish Hollywood press conference to make everything look legit.

The first act is where Argo pays its dues. Zinging one-liners are fired left and right as Chambers and the fictional producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) teach Mendez how to fake it Hollywood-style – all a clear attempt to give Argo’s execs the light-hearted Ben Affleck vehicle they probably wanted. Nevertheless, it is all in good fun, often raises a smile, and retains a firm sense of reality by means of Affleck’s stern-faced performance.

However, as Mendez arrives in Iran, the film shifts into a somewhat more serious gear. While the political and historical setting of the film isn’t explored in too much depth, Argo at least maintains a refreshing amount of even-handedness. For every shot of angry Iranians shouting ‘death to America’, another piece of stock footage provides the flipside, showing the xenophobic and often violent anti-Iranian protests which broke out in the US. Similarly, the opening narration, which offers a light-on-the-facts sweep of Iran’s history, makes no bones about the fact that the malevolent rule of the Shah was a product of Western intervention.

Rather than wasting time casting heroes and villains, Argo focuses on Mendez’s feat itself, and tension mounts as he makes preparations, amid constant fears that the six will either be discovered or that his increasingly sceptical superiors will pull the op.

Ironically, it is here, when shit starts to get real, that the script departs most from the actual course of events. The journey to the airport gate is, in the film, a slow-burning, obstacle-ridden ordeal. Yet in reality, their honed cover stories worked perfectly, they boarded their flight without any problems, and they were sipping celebratory Bloody Marys as soon as they left Iranian airspace.

Nevertheless, Argo should be forgiven for taking a bit of dramatic license, not least because, while it may be highly embellished, the final act is gut-wrenchingly intense. Even if you go into the cinema well aware of how everything turns out, you’ll still find yourself drifting to the edge of your seat and breathing a huge sigh of teary-eyed relief when they make it out unscathed.

The only truly irritating invention is that of Mendez being estranged from his wife and son at the time. Added, presumably, to give his final return home that little bit more meaning, it is simply redundant.

That aside, Argo is a film which negotiates fact and fiction with care and aplomb, serving up an eminently watchable thriller from the recently declassified pages of history.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Argo here:

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