Preceded only by a brief explanation of U.S.-Iranian 20th century relations over a series of storyboards (which reappear as a pivotal prop later in the film), Argo's depiction of the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 is chilling, especially considering the recent deaths of four Americans after a terrorist attack in Libya, along with violent protests at U.S. outposts across the Arab world.
But this film is not about the 52 Americans captured and detained for more than a year, nor is it about the policies, conditions, or global tensions that fostered the Iranian hostage crisis. It is about the six Americans who manage to sneak out of the embassy, taken in by the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) and his wife, and the bold—reckless, even—plan to bring them back.
A bearded Ben Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, an "exfiltration" specialist who helps plot the escape of the six diplomats hiding in the ambassador's home. With the conventional options deemed impossible or implausible, Mendez dreams big—Hollywood big—and a plan is born to fly the diplomats out of Iran posing as Canadian filmmakers looking for a location to film a sci-fi alien fantasy called "Argo." Make-up guru John Chambers (John Goodman), an acquaintance of Mendez who has experience working on such other-worldy films, and aging, hack producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) are pulled into what becomes known as "The Hollywood Option," putting together a script, a studio front, and even a media blitz, so the diplomats' covers stand up to the questioning of the Iranian authorities. To fool the revolutionaries thirsty for American blood, the plan needs all the glitter Tinseltown has to offer.
The Hollywood collaboration brings comic relief to an otherwise somber film. Goodman and Arkin one-up each other for the best lines, playing up L.A. cynicism as they ridicule the showbiz industry. Meanwhile, the situation in Iran deteriorates and the tension grows as the hostage-takers grow closer to realizing the six diplomats are missing from the embassy. Furthermore, Washington is balking at Mendez's plan—the best defense his boss Jack O'Donnell (Brian Cranston) can offer is that the mission is "the best bad plan" they've got.
The first half of Argo walks a tight line between the very serious business of diplomacy and the very frivolous business of movie-making. Argo does not shy away from this jarring contrast, but rather, heightens it: A disorienting montage combines a circus of a table reading orchestrated by the "Argo" pseudo-producers; the grave demands of the Iranian revolutionaries' listed off by a perceptively meek female hostage-taker; and President Carter's solemn vow that the United States will not buckle to terrorists.
These worlds collapse on each other once "The Hollywood Option" is put into action, and Argo throttles forward as Mendez is sent into Iran. The suspense escalates as every step of the plan is met some sort of close call, near-miss, or full-on debacle.
Affleck, who also directed and produced the film, plays Mendez stoically and resolutely, allowing his Hollywood sidekicks to sparkle in their unceasing humor and the diplomats he is sent to rescue to shine in their own heroics.
The Hollywood levity and brashness of the whole operation—this is the Iranian hostage crisis, not Ocean's 11 after all—is not meant to make light of a dire diplomatic situation. As he watches a broadcast of the protests, Chambers ponders, "You ever think this is all for the cameras?" bringing to the light the film's nuanced commentary, otherwise buried very deep: Even terrorists understand the importance of optics, making Hollywood a strangely appropriate bedfellow.
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Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. E-mail her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter.