For those who were around back then, the Iran hostage crisis remains seared into the American psyche as a time of national humiliation and impotency. The U.S. Embassy was taken by Iranian revolutionaries on Nov. 4, 1979, and 52 diplomatic staffers were held hostage for 444 days.
Now comes a bit of a balm to the nation's wounded pride that effectively combines history, laugh-out-loud bits of humor, humanity and suspense in a largely forgotten chapter of that awful time.
“Argo,” directed by and starring Ben Affleck, tells how six Americans escaped the U.S. Consulate by a side door and were hidden in the private residence of the Canadian ambassador. Almost three months later, they were sneaked out of the country posing as Canadian moviemakers, scouting locations for a sci-fi fantasy titled “Argo.”
This is one of those movies whose ending is known going in. Yet Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio skillfully find ways to fashion an exciting caper that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Affleck, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (“Good Will Hunting”), has shown considerable skill behind the camera before (“Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town”). This time he not only directs but plays Tony Mendez, a CIA expert at disguises and exfiltration — getting people safely out of hostile territory.
While the CIA role in the escape was kept secret for many years, it was Mendez who came up with the idea of Canadians making a fake movie. First he has to sell his idea to the State Department, then his Hollywood contacts. His toughest sell, at least in the movie, is to the frightened fugitives themselves.
But as the Iranians close in on the Canadian operation and on the identities of the Americans in hiding, it becomes clear they have no other alternative. Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) and his staff are also at great personal risk.
Affleck and crew go to great lengths to re-create famous scenes from the hostage crisis, paying attention to period detail. He also cast actors who look something like the fugitives and Taylor and his wife, as photos during the credits demonstrate. (Stick around later in the credits to hear what then-President Jimmy Carter has to say about the operation.)
Beyond strong writing, skillful editing and cinematography, two things about “Argo” particularly impress. One is the hilarity Affleck squeezes out of the Hollywood characters, despite spare screen time. Alan Arkin, as past-prime producer Lester Siegel, and John Goodman, as makeup artist John Chambers, set up a fake company and plant stories in Variety magazine, all the while cracking one-liners about the business that had me roaring with laughter.
In juxtaposed scenes, the parallels drawn between acting for the cameras in Hollywood and acting for the cameras by the revolutionaries in Tehran are both effective and eye-opening. Meanwhile, Goodman and Arkin have a little picnic playing movie types they know so well.
Also impressive: Background stories for characters such as Affleck's and Arkin's are fleshed out with great economy, yet in a way that effectively makes you care about them and see them in a human light.
Has history been altered for dramatic effect? Tweaked and simplified, no doubt. And maybe suspense heightened here and there. But the thrust of the story is true.
Affleck finds a way to make history resonate, but he balances national pride at the rescue by spelling out the U.S. role that led to Iranian revolution. It's mature storytelling, a story well told and worth the time it takes to tell it.
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