I was 9 years old when the Iran hostage crisis happened in November 1979. The American diplomats, captured in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, were held for 444 days. I was almost 11 when they were released. My memory of the incident was seeing the same image on the news every night, of a man with his eyes blindfolded, and the number of days underneath. Night after night. What I didn’t know, nor did anyone else, was anything about the true story of the so-crazy-it-just-might-work rescue of 6 other Americans that the CIA pulled off (with no small help from Canada).
Argo opens with a frankly terrifying sequence of the American Embassy in Tehran being invaded by very, very angry locals. The urgency and doomed inevitability of the situation builds and builds, as we switch from Embassy employees frantically watching security cameras, shredding and burning documents as fast as possible, and Iranians scaling the walls, breaking through gates, then finally into the building. I swear, I was so tense watching this that I was clutching my seat and even crying a little. Six diplomats escape out of a little-known back door, where they run down the street to the first friendly residence, the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Meanwhile, to international furor, 52 Americans are captured in the Embassy and held hostage by the Iranian militants.
Luckily, Argo is only that intense in bursts, but when it kicks into gear, it is indeed a terrific thriller. After then initial violent takeover of the embassy, things stall, then weeks… and months go by. The CIA is aware of the six hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s home, and various plans are hatched to try to get them out before they are discovered. In comes Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), who has the reputation of never leaving anyone behind. What’s his plan? While watching a Planet of the Apes movie on TV, he thinks, well, why not pretend that the hiding Americans are a Canadian film crew scouting for locations for a Star-Wars rip-off sci-fi flick named Argo? Sure, why not. OK, wait… what???
The events of Argo were so classified that the truth behind the amazing rescue (at the time, full credit was given to Canada) was only able to surface almost two decades later when the actions of Tony Mendez and the CIA were revealed. The idea that real-life Hollywood-types, like an Oscar winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and a producer (played by Alan Arkin), played a huge role in setting up this great cover story is truly fantastic, in the most fantastical sense. To think that these most sought-after people might be able to drive to the airport and leave right under the noses of the militants is so unbelievable and scary that you wouldn’t believe it for a second if it weren’t true.
Ben Affleck has crafted a thrilling and terrifically entertaining film. There is enough biting humor to keep you from vomiting from tension, and there are fine performances all around, from Bryan Cranston as the main CIA honcho coordinating from DC, to Farshad Farahat in a minor but crucial role as a checkpoint guard that could bring the rescue to a crashing halt. This film has already spawned controversy and discussion over (funny enough) the Hollywoodization of a rescue in which Hollywood took a part. But if the film is taken at face value, and not as a documentary, it sure is a great entertainment.
Argo is now available in a special Argo Extended Edition Blu-ray box set. Fun collectible goodies include a reproduction mini-poster of the fake movie Argo (would fit nicely next to a Star Wars poster from my youth!), a map a Tehran for your next vacation, showing notable locations from scenes in the film, a 40-page book with images and info on the movie, and a reproduction of Tony Mendez’s CIA card (with the face of Ben Affleck as Tony, alas). New extras includes a mashup of Argo’s most enduring quote “Argo F*ck Yourself”, “Argo Declassified” which tells about Mendez’s operation as part of the CIA’s 50th anniversary, “Ben Affleck’s Balancing Act” about Ben and the multiple hats he wore for this production, plus an extended cut of the film with 10 extra minutes. Additional special features include audio commentary with Ben Affleck and writer Chris Terrio, interviews with the key players in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis including President Jimmy Carter, former CIA agent Tony Mendez, and the houseguests, a featurette on recreating the era for film, a peek inside the Canadian government, a bit about how Istanbul was chosen for shooting the film, and a look back at how the CIA made Hollywood believe in a fictional film.