Argo – Movie Review
Argo stars Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell and John Goodman as John Chambers. Ben Affleck directed it from a screenplay by Chris Terrio.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this: [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
The title uses a classic title archetype, a motif, in this case, the name of the movie the protagonists are supposedly filming while they plot to smuggle the fugitive diplomats out of Iran.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
During the 1979 Iranian revolution, a CIA officer plans to help six American diplomats escape the country disguised as a Canadian film crew, but with the Revolutionary Guards closing in and no support from his superiors, he must move fast to avoid being caught and executed.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
Argo: Plot Summary
Argo opens with a brief summary of the history of Iran, including the US-engineered coup that brought the Shah to power, the abuses that he perpetrated, and how that led to hatred of the Shah’s main sponsor, the USA, and an Islamic revolution.
During the revolution, Iranian militants storm the United States embassy in Tehran. They take most of the embassy staff hostage, but the Canadian ambassador takes a few escapees in.
The Hollywood Option
The CIA asks Tony Mendez, one of their ‘exfiltration experts’, to come up with a plan to help the fugitives escape from Tehran and get across the border. Options are few. It’s winter, so going through the mountains will be arduous. And there are very few foreigners in the country, making disguise difficult. Mendez suggests creating a cover story that the fugitives are a Canadian film crew looking for locations for a science-fiction film. They can then leave Tehran on a commercial flight.
Mendez contacts a Hollywood film producer and funds a film production company. They find a sci-fi script called Argo, that they can buy relatively cheaply. They create a buzz around the upcoming movie to get coverage in the trade papers and so lend credibility to the masquerade. Meanwhile, the Iranian revolutionaries discover that some American Embassy staff escaped, and start looking for them.
Mendez enters Iran pretending he is Argo’s assistant producer. He goes to the ministry of culture, to establish his cover by asking for a permit to film. The Iranians are suspicious.
At the Canadian ambassador’s house, Mendez meets up with the six fugitives. The Canadian ambassador provides all six with Canadian passports and Mendez gives them cover stories to learn. The fugitives are scared and sceptical of their ability to keep up their cover under interrogation, but Mendez persuades them there is no other option, as the Iranians are closing in. In fact, the Iranians already suspect the Canadian ambassador is harbouring the six missing Americans.
An Iranian Ministry of Culture representative asks to meet with the ‘film crew’. The streets of Tehran are full of angry crowds, but Mendez and the fugitives go to the meeting anyway. The crowd turns hostile, and the team has to flee. This makes them even more nervous about the escape plan.
Mendez learns that the USA is planning a military strike to rescue of the hostages. His CIA superiors order him to cancel the escape, seeming to feel that if the Iranians capture the fugitives and kill them, it will not necessarily be a bad thing, as it will increase the demand for war in the USA…
Despite [blackout]his orders, Mendez goes ahead. Facing a fait accompli, the CIA agrees to help him, as a failed escape will be worse than no escape. But they’ve already cancelled the airline tickets and have to scramble to get them reauthorised, with the fugitives standing in line at the airport.[/blackout]
At the first [blackout]airport checkpoint, the fugitives have to explain why their exit visas have no matching entrance visas, but convince the guards with a letter from the Ministry of Culture.[/blackout]
At the [blackout]embassy, the Iranians finally find pictures of the escapees and match them with the ‘Canadian film crew’. They race to the Canadian Ambassador’s house, discover he’s abandoned it, and rush to the airport.[/blackout]
At the last [blackout]airport checkpoint, the guards are much more suspicious and pull the team into an interrogation room. Even the cover story about the movie doesn’t convince them. The fugitives give the guards the telephone number of the supposed production company in Hollywood. The guards call the number and the ‘producer’ confirms their cover story. This finally convinces the guards, and they allow the group to board the aircraft.[/blackout]
The group [blackout]boards the plane, which takes off as the Iranians chase it down the runway. Clearing Iranian airspace, the group celebrates.[/blackout]
Back in [blackout]the USA, the CIA gives all the credit for the rescue to the Canadians in order to hide their involvement. They also award Mendez their highest honour, the Intelligence Star, but as the mission is secret, he won’t be able to tell anyone.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
Argo has a straightforward ‘Mission’ plot. The CIA brings Mendez in to rescue the fugitive diplomats. He makes a plan to do so and carries it out. The story piles obstacles in his way and he works his way through them until he achieves his mission.
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by his Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as he tries to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance subplot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission plan, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they encounter them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes)
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
The Antagonist in Argo never takes on an individual face, there is no ‘villain’. Instead, ‘the Revolutionary Guards’ or even (e.g. the scene in the souk) Iranians in general are the Antagonists. Also, the story is told almost entirely from Mendez’s point of view. There are a couple of brief jumps to his allies, but Iranian characters are almost absent from the film.
The film lacks a sympathetic Iranian character. There is a one slight exception, a single scene where Revolutionary Guards interrogate the Canadian Ambassador’s Iranian housekeeper, who the fugitives have previously suspected as an informer, and she doesn’t give them away. Apart from that scene, Iranians in the movie are nothing but an undifferentiated, angry mob who want to kill Americans.
Argo: The True Story
Like Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, though based on a true story, is not a documentary. There’s a lot of dramatic licence and sheer invention in the movie. In fact, only the barest outline of the story is actually true.
Yes, there were American diplomats smuggled out of Tehran disguised as a film crew and Canadian diplomats and the CIA had some involvement – that’s about as far as it goes. The movie simplifies, exaggerates or plain makes up the rest of the plot.
- The British and New Zealand embassies didn’t refuse to help, and in fact the British took the fugitives in first, before handing them to the Canadians as they were under threat themselves, as the Iranians also overran the British embassy.
- Not all the fugitives stayed with the Canadian ambassador.
- They did not even call the film Argo to start with. Originally, they called it Lord of Light and only changed the name later.
- The trip through the dangerous streets of Tehran to the souk didn’t happen.
- The CIA didn’t cancel the escape, and Mendez didn’t go against orders to bring the diplomats back.
- There were no chases, no tough questioning at checkpoints, and no nail-biting near misses.
- The Iranians did not test the ‘film crew’ cover story at any point.
- In reality, the New Zealand ambassador drove the ‘film crew’ to the airport at 05:30 for an 07:00 flight, and they walked through airport security with hardly a question.
One dramatic event that happened in both reality and in Argo was the Iranian housekeeper persuading the Revolutionary Guards that there were no Americans in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Ironically, that’s not a major scene in the movie.
Argo: Alternative Movie Poster
This poster was produced by Michael Ngusa. I thought took an interesting approach, using stills from the movie. The ‘filmstrip’ is highly appropriate for a movie about a film crew.
Argo: My Rating
A gripping and tension filled movie, but not to be mistaken for a documentary.
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