“Argo” is a well-crafted nail-biter drama that this reviewer predicts will be a box office success. Because the good guys outsmart the bad guys. And the good guys R us.
Flashback to 1979. Iran, having overthrown its U.S.-backed playboy Shah and installed the radical Islamist Ayatollah Khomeini, bring their anti-Western backlash literally to the doors of the U.S. embassy. The employees trapped inside realize there is a crisis brewing, and try desperately to shred the sensitive documents before they ignominiously flee the premises. Except that only 6 employees ever got that chance. The rest were captured when the angry mob stormed the gates, and took the rest as hostages.
The 6 make their way to the Canadian embassy, where they are taken in and sheltered, which makes the State Department happy. But the CIA guys are thinking that a rescue op needs to be developed. The trouble is, there are nothing but bad ideas, because no foreigners are allowed in Iran right now, anyway, for any reason, be that agronomist advisors (it’s winter) or missionaries (really bad idea) or merchants (they have their own). So one creative operative, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with the best bad idea: pretend the 6 are part of a Canadian film crew. Except somehow this has to look like a real Hollywood-sponsored production. So they actually go to the trouble to take a dead script out of the bone pile, something sci/fi about space invaders, and promote it and cast it and have a fake read-through with the gullible press present, all to create an illusion that would enable Mr. Mendez to fly into Tehran and manage to get the 6 trapped Americans out of there.
It was a dismal time for President Carter; he kept trying to negotiate with the terrorists, to no avail, and the economy at home was spiraling out of control, and he just looked inept: a nice guy who was in way over his head (and unfortunately, that collective memory ossifies into historical perception). The CIA was so desperate to do something that it approved this cockamamie scheme, and it almost didn’t work. And they almost got cold feet and quit in the middle of it. But its small success was one of the silver linings in the whole diplomatic cloud that became the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
Ben Affleck is both star and director, and he excels at both. The action is taut, the story is credible, the characters look so much like the “real” people involved that they even do a photographic montage at the end, demonstrating how close to “real” life we are here. But the viewer needs no reminder how real this feels; anybody who lived through that time still has a sour taste in the mouth because of it. “Argo” provides just enough salt to make the memory palatable.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas