Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction. Or so said Lord Byron in his poem ‘Don Juan’. Actor-director Ben Affleck’s riveting new film ‘Argo’ re-enacts the true story of the CIA’s ‘Canadian Caper’ covert operation to rescue six Americans trapped in Tehran during the 1979-1980 hostage crisis.
The spy op was declassified in 1997. Chris Terrio adapted the film for the screen from a Wired magazine article and a chapter from the memoir ‘The Master in Disguise’ of CIA agent Antonio Mendez who is played by Affleck. Shot largely in LA, the film features a large pool of Iranian-Americans who supplemented the super-duper cast which in
cludes thespians John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
Argo opens with a brief history lesson about Iran (not a word about ancient Persia) as the Ayatollah-led rebellion against Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi reaches a crescendo. Protestors roil outside U.S. Embassy cars, finally storming the Embassy itself and taking 52 Americans hostage (on November 4, 1979). In the US of A, the powers-that-be are in a tizzy about the hostages until ‘exfiltration’ specialist Tony Mendez comes up with a nutty plan to free the six who managed to slip out and found shelter in the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). What if they pretended to be a Canadian film crew location scouting for a sci-fi movie called Argo?
The CIA head honchos suggest other impractical alternatives before sanctioning “the best bad idea we have” as Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) puts it. Mendez then enlists the help of an old buddy, make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who ropes in (the only fictional character in Argo) producer Lester Siegel (Arkin, fabulous) to make the fake flick as real as possible. That the duo does, from concocting fake identities for the diplomats to setting up an office with a land-line and getting press coverage, while Mendez puts the sextet through their paces in Tehran.
We’re sure the hostage crisis wasn’t the slightest bit funny but Terrio’s screenplay blends huge dollops of comedy with tense action and danger: Dissidents are strung up on cranes, the bazaar turns hostile and chador clad women brandish high tech weaponry.