Note: This review discusses the end of the movie because (A) it’s based on a documented historical event, so fussing too much over “spoilers” seems silly and (B) this is what I want to write about, and it’s my blog, so I can do what I want.
Argo definitely succeeds as a movie. The extraordinary premise—the escape from revolutionary Iran of American embassy workers disguised as Canadian filmmakers—captures the imagination immediately. The cast is almost completely composed of great character actors delivering spirited performances. The tonal shifts between tension and humor are odd, but somehow they work. The period touches—from the hilariously unattractive late-’70s fashions to the charmingly retro film work—are spot-on and compellingly immersive. It’s a fun, exciting, inspiring movie.
Toward the end, though—when the Americans are almost made at the airport, and then the revolutionaries realize they’ve been tricked, and they shoot open the doors and race onto the runway to try to prevent the plane from taking off—I kind of wondered, wait, did this really happen too? And it turns out, no, it didn’t. Numerous details have been fudged, both to simplify the escape (mainly by playing up the CIA’s efforts and downplaying those of their Canadian counterparts, which is problematic in itself) and to make it more dramatic (all that running and shouting in the airport). Like many based-on-true-events stories, Argo has been moviefied.
Normally, I can’t get too excited about this issue unless a film truly distorts a person’s character or the import of an event—which I don’t believe is the case here—but for some reason, with Argo, the distortions are what I keep coming back to when I try to write about the movie. Paradoxically, I’m more frustrated than I usually am with such cinematic misreporting and more inclined to forgive the elisions and narrative ruses. I am of two minds, and that’s ultimately what I had to examine.
But first, let me back up to the premise: In 1979, revolutionaries depose the shah of Iran and attack the U.S. embassy in retaliation for American support of the fallen dictator. Six embassy workers manage to escape as the militants storm the compound. They find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador, but both the American and Canadian governments understand that this can only be a temporary measure. The Americans have to be extracted—for their safety and that of their Canadian hosts—but with revolutionaries occupying the airport and patrolling the streets, there simply is no safe way to pull them out.
Then CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, also directing) offers a bizarre but strangely plausible cover story for six Westerners in Iran: He will disguise them as a Canadian film crew scouting the country for locales for a sci-fi fantasy. With no better option on the table, the CIA goes along with the plan. Mendez and his Hollywood collaborators (Alan Arkin and John Goodman) set up a film company, pick a script, build up the project in the trade press, and establish the false identities of the escapees—and then Mendez, as one of the “producers,” flies into Tehran to meet his crew and bring them home.
After a heavily expository history lesson of a prologue (which I can’t fault too much since I just did the same thing here), Argo does a brilliant job of establishing just how tense and dangerous Tehran was as the hostage crisis at the embassy dragged into a dismal 1980. (Particularly admirable is the movie’s ability to establish that tension and danger without becoming xenophobic.) We get only brief sketches of the six Americans in hiding, but the actors (among them Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, and Scoot McNairy as the most pessimistic of the bunch) vividly convey their stir-crazy fear and frustration.
The larkier Hollywood scenes, in which Arkin and Goodman trade wisecracks and stage what looks like the goofiest space opera ever imagined, initially feel like they’re from another movie entirely—but the contrast eventually works to the movie’s advantage as the Hollywood showmanship and flash arrive in Tehran. In some ways, Argo is about the seemingly universal seductive power of movies. An American kid and an Iranian militant can easily share a love of heroic spacemen on intergalactic adventures. That silly yet primal story speaks to them both.
And it’s when Argo plays up that idea that I happily forgive its own silliness in service to a grand heroic story. In one scene in particular—when the “film crew” seems to have been revealed as false mere steps away from the airplane—McNairy, playing that particularly gloomy escapee, steps forward to narrate the storyboards in Farsi for the skeptical revolutionaries. He subtly suggests that the movie’s hero is also a kind of revolutionary, and his childlike sound effects, illustrating the space ships and explosions, convey wonder in any language.
It’s a perfect moment—thrilling and gorgeous and quietly profound—and from what I’ve read, it’s all a lie. The escapees had no problem boarding the plane in Tehran. They didn’t have to talk their way past the guards there. The storyboards were never put to such dramatic, life-saving use.
Elsewhere, though, the movie makes a show of portraying life exactly as it unfolded. The escapees, for example, have been made up to look like doppelgängers of the people they’re playing—as the juxtaposed photos over the closing credits demonstrate. Similarly, Argo re-creates a number of iconic images of the Iranian Revolution—and again offers up side-by-side shots as proof of its verisimilitude. Those documentary-like trappings suggest that the storytelling is also faithful down to the smallest detail, and that clearly isn’t the case. I think that’s why it threw me to suspect (and then learn for sure) that the climax had been gussied up.
The contrast between Hollywood and Iran works; the dissonance between documented detail and embellished storytelling does not. And the sad thing is, I don’t think that dissonance was necessary. As Argo itself makes clear, movies and storytelling are powerful and affecting even when they’re not precisely true—even when they are, in simple fact, a lie. I don’t mind that the filmmakers of Argo wanted a cleaner dramatic arc with a more extravagant climax. That scene at the airport—painting a romantic picture with those simple storyboards—is easily my favorite scene in the whole movie. It resonates more deeply than the finicky reproduction of some diplomat’s receding hairline or even the nerve-racking minute-by-minute presentation of the fall of the embassy. The movie feels a bit off because it tries to sell itself as a faultless docudrama and a Hollywood thriller. It could have been great as either one, but it can’t be great as both.