About the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1979-80. America is the big enemy for harbouring the Shah, so the revolutionary guards want to capture the Americans besieged in their embassy. Six of the US staff escape to the Canadian embassy. Ben Affleck plays CIA official Tony Mendez, his idea is to get them out by posing as a film crew making a sci-fi movie Argo in Iran. He enlists the movie experience of Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Jon Chambers (John Goodman). Affleck and co escape from the Canadian embassy but can they get to the airport and escape?
This is a heist movie and a comedy about Hollywood. There is a lot of fun at Hollywood’s expense (its image problem in that era symbolised by the dilapidated Hollywood sign) as Siegel and Chambers show how cheesy a lot of these sub Star Trek films actually are. The film set in Iran is a grim story with reminders of The Killing Fields. Both films show desperate westerners stuck in embassies whilst revolutionary retribution swirls around outside. The film tells us Mohammed Mossedeg was ousted in 1953 by a US and UK designed coup that replaced him with the Shah and his vile police, the Savak. This insured the bitter hatred of the largely Shia Muslim population. Though the film acknowledges Iranian anger in its voice over, it still rendered the people cartoonishly hate ridden and mean, and I found this grossly unfair. No doubt this ratchets the tension but it does nothing to dispel the stereotypes that still seem to prevail in the west’s attitude towards the post 1979 Iran (and I say this as one who detests Islamic fundamentalism). It is as if this movie cannot help itself showing the usual decent Americans battling against an anti-American world. We get a lingering view of how these people face a crisis and self congratulatory flag waving at the end of it. An Iranian who had suffered in Savak’s dungeons might have a different view of this (although the Ayatollah regime easily matched Savak in cruelty). The tension is skilfully handled, though the film does resort to a few familiarities; the besieged car, the last minute heart stopping fears in the airport, the deteriorating group dynamics staffed by the loud hysteric opposed by the reasonable voice of calm. We get the usual details about the 70s: oversized spectacles, bad hair and moustaches, bad clothes and overflowing ashtrays. Affleck’s Mendez is all steely decency, he barely manages any expression other than benign stoicism. The CIA officialdom are much taken with his brilliantly bad idea (he copied it from Planet of the Apes), and it’s all done fairly well, but I feel manipulated by the plight of the Americans..