Argo is a 2012 American thriller film directed by Ben Affleck; it is a dramatization of and is based on a 2007 article about the “Canadian Caper“, in which Tony Mendez, a CIA operative, led the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, Iran, during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
The film stars Affleck as Mendez with Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman, and was released in North America to critical and commercial success on October 12, 2012. The film was produced by Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, and George Clooney. The story of this rescue was also told in the 1981 television movie Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper, directed by Lamont Johnson.
Argo received seven nominations at the 85th Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio) and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Alan Arkin). Argo also earned five Golden Globe nominations, and won the Best Picture – Drama, and Best Director, while being nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Arkin. It won the award for the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards with Alan Arkin being nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role. It also won Best Film, Best Editing, and Best Director for Ben Affleck at the 66th British Academy Film Awards.
When the nominations for the 85th Academy Awards were announced, there was controversy because Affleck was not nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, with Bradley Cooper, Quentin Tarantino and host Seth MacFarlane commenting that he got robbed. Cooper and Tarantino are nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained, respectively.
Militants storm the United States embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, in retaliation for the US sheltering the recently deposed Shah. More than 50 of the embassy staff are taken as hostages, but six escape and hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). With the escapees’ situation kept secret, the US State Department begins to explore options for “exfiltrating” them from Iran. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA exfiltration specialist brought in for consultation, criticizes the proposals. He too is at a loss for an alternative until, inspired at home by watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV with his son, he plans to create a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a similar sci-fi film.
Mendez and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) contact John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood make-up artist who has previously crafted disguises for the CIA. Chambers puts them in touch with film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Together they set up a phony film studio, publicize their plans, and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a “science fantasy” in the style of Star Wars, to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow frantic inside the ambassador’s residence. The revolutionaries reassemble embassy papers shredded before the takeover and learn that some personnel have escaped.
Posing as a producer for Argo, Mendez enters Iran and links up with the six escapees. He provides them with Canadian passports and fake identities to prepare them to get through security at the airport. Although afraid to trust Mendez’s scheme, they reluctantly go along with it, knowing that he is risking his own life too. A “scouting” visit to the bazaar to maintain their cover story takes a bad turn, but their Iranian culture contact gets them away from the hostile crowd.
Mendez is told that the operation has been cancelled to avoid conflicting with a planned military rescue of the hostages. He pushes ahead, forcing O’Donnell to hastily re-obtain authorization for the mission to get tickets on a Swissair flight. Tension rises at the airport, where the escapees’ flight reservations are confirmed at the last minute, and a guard’s call to the supposed studio in Hollywood is answered at the last second. The group boards the plane just as the Iranian guards uncover the ruse and try to stop their plane from getting off the runway.
To protect the hostages remaining in Tehran from retaliation, all US involvement in the rescue is suppressed, giving full credit to the Canadian government and its ambassador (who left Iran with his wife under their own credentials as the operation was underway; their Iranian housekeeper, who had known about the Americans and lied to the revolutionaries to protect them, escaped to Iraq). Mendez is awarded the Intelligence Star, but due to the classified nature of the mission, he would not be able to keep the medal until the details were made public in 1997. All the hostages were freed on January 20, 1981. The film ends with President Jimmy Carter‘s speech about the Crisis and the Canadian Caper.
- Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez
- Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell
- Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel
- John Goodman as John Chambers
- Tate Donovan as Robert Anders
- Clea DuVall as Cora Lijek
- Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek
- Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford
- Kerry Bishé as Kathy Stafford
- Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz
- Victor Garber as Ken Taylor
- Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan
- Chris Messina as Malinov
- Željko Ivanek as Robert Pender
- Titus Welliver as Jon Bates
- Bob Gunton as Cyrus Vance (United States Secretary of State)
- Philip Baker Hall as Warren Christopher (United States Deputy Secretary of State) (Uncredited)
- Richard Kind as Max Klein
- Richard Dillane as Peter Nicholls
- Michael Parks as Jack Kirby
- Tom Lenk as Rodd
- Christopher Stanley as Tom Ahern
- Page Leong as Pat Taylor
- Taylor Schilling as Christine Mendez
- Ashley Wood as Beauty
- Sheila Vand as Sahar
- Devansh Mehta as Matt Sanders
- Omid Abtahi as Reza
- Karina Logue as Elizabeth Ann Swift
- Adrienne Barbeau as Nina
- Fouad Hajji as Komiteh
Affleck cast Goodman, Parks and Bishé after seeing them in Red State.
Argo is based on the Canadian Caper that took place during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980. Chris Terrio wrote the screenplay based on Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 article in Wired: “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.” The article was written after the records were declassified.
In 2007, the producers George Clooney, Grant Heslov and David Klawans set up a project based on the article. Affleck’s participation was announced in February 2011. The following June, Alan Arkin was the first person cast in the film. After the rest of the roles were cast, filming began in Los Angeles, in August 2011. Additional filming took place in McLean, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Istanbul.
Archival TV news footage from the era was used throughout the film as in-story exposition. Reflecting the time period of the film, the opening credits use the “triple slash” W Warner Bros. logo (originally used by Warner Communications), which was used by the company from 1972 to 1984, instead of the contemporary “WB” shield logo.
The Shah and the coup
During the opening prologue, the narrator claims that the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was installed by the 1953 Iranian coup d’état. This is a half-truth. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had been shah since 1941, but the coup d’état gave Pahlavi ultimate authority, whereas previously Iran had been a constitutional monarchy headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.
The narrator says Mohammed Mossadegh was “overwhelmingly elected as Prime Minister” by the Iranian people; technically, he was elected Prime Minister by the Iranian Parliament on the base of the elections of 1950, after his predecessor Haj Ali Razmara was assassinated. Iranian prime ministers were chosen by Parliament members, who were elected by popular vote, as in many parliamentary governments.
The Shah’s full name was “Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi”; however the film’s narrator correctly refers to the Shah as “Reza Pahlavi”. “Reza Pahlavi” (English transliteration) is the common term westerners used when referring to the man without using his title. Both “Mohammed” and “Reza” were given names but he preferred “Reza”, an ancient and heroic name of Iranian/Persian (not Islamic) origin. Many men in Iran were given “Mohammad” as their first name, but used their second given name for differentiation, using the same pattern. “Pahlavi” was the surname, but the law requiring people to take such surnames was enacted only around the time of Reza Pahlavi’s birth. Hence the “Pahlavi” name was present, but tenuous, especially since he was considered royalty and the Pahlavi surname was rarely used elsewhere within Iran. “Pahlavi”, meaning “champion” or “hero” was the surname taken by Reza Shah, the deposed Shah’s father at the time of the surname law was passed. “Reza Pahlavi” would be equivalent to referring to Elizabeth II of the UK as “Elizabeth Windsor”, were she to abdicate.
Canadian vs. CIA roles
After the film was previewed at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012, some critics said that it unfairly glorified the role of the CIA and minimized the role of the Canadian government, particularly that of Ambassador Taylor, in the extraction operation. Macleans asserted that “the movie rewrites history at Canada’s expense, making Hollywood and the CIA the saga’s heroic saviours while Taylor is demoted to a kindly concierge.” The postscript text said that the CIA let Taylor take the credit for political purposes, which some critics thought implied that he did not deserve the accolades he received. Affleck changed the postscript text to read, “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.” The Toronto Star complained, “Even that hardly does Canada justice.” When interviewed, Taylor noted that, “In reality, Canada was responsible for the six and the CIA was a junior partner. But I realize this is a movie and you have to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.” Taylor is also shown threatening to close the Canadian embassy in the movie; in reality, this never happened.
“Because we say it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we’re allowed to take some dramatic license. There’s a spirit of truth”, and that, “the kinds of things that are really important to be true are—for example, the relationship between the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. stood up collectively as a nation and said, ‘We like you, we appreciate you, we respect you, and we’re in your debt.’…There were folks who didn’t want to stick their necks out and the Canadians did. They said, ‘We’ll risk our diplomatic standing, our lives, by harbouring six Americans because it’s the right thing to do.’ Because of that, their lives were saved.”
British and New Zealand roles
Upon its wide release in October 2012, the film was criticized for its claim that the New Zealand and British diplomats had turned away the six American refugees in Tehran. Diplomats from New Zealand had proved quite helpful; one drove the Americans to the airport. The British hosted the Americans initially, but the location was not safe and all considered the Canadian ambassador’s residence to be the better location. British diplomats also assisted other Americans beyond the six. Bob Anders, the U.S. consular agent played in the film by Tate Donovan, said, “They put their lives on the line for us. We were all at risk. I hope no one in Britain will be offended by what’s said in the film. The British were good to us and we’re forever grateful.”
Sir John Graham, the then-British ambassador to Iran, said, “My immediate reaction on hearing about this was one of outrage. I have since simmered down, but am still very distressed that the film-makers should have got it so wrong. My concern is that the inaccurate account should not enter the mythology of the events in Tehran in November 1979.” The then-British chargé d’affaires in Tehran said that, had the Americans been discovered in the British embassy, “I can assure you we’d all have been for the high jump [i.e., in trouble].” 
Affleck is quoted as saying to the Sunday Telegraph: “I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair. But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.”
Imminent danger to the group
In the film, the diplomats face suspicious glances from Iranians whenever they go out in public, and appear close to being caught at many steps along the way to their freedom: while pretending to scout for filming locations at a bazaar; while purchasing plane tickets to Zurich; while trying to board the plane; and finally before the plane takes off, when Iranian guards try to stop the plane in a dramatic chase sequence. In reality, the diplomats never appeared to be in imminent danger: the six never went to a bazaar, Taylor’s wife bought three sets of plane tickets from three different airlines ahead of time, there was no confrontation with security officials at the departure gate, and there was no runway chase at the airport.
The film contains other historical inaccuracies:
- The major role of producer Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, is fictional.
- The film depicts a dramatic last-minute cancellation of the mission by the Carter administration and a bureaucratic crisis in which Mendez declares he will proceed with the mission. Carter delayed authorization by only 30 minutes, and that was before Mendez had left Europe for Iran.
- In real life, CIA agent Antonio Mendez is part-Mexican, leading some critics to argue that Ben Affleck should have cast a Hispanic actor, and not himself, in the role.
- The Hollywood sign is shown dilapidated as it had been in the past, but it had actually been repaired in 1978, prior to the events described in the film.
Release and reception
Argo was widely acclaimed by critics. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 96% of critics gave the film positive reviews based on 246 reviews, with an average score of 8.4 out of 10. Its consensus reads: “Tense, exciting and often darkly comic, Argo recreates a historical event with vivid attention to detail and finely wrought characters.” At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film has received an average score of 86, considered to be “universal acclaim”, based on 45 reviews. Naming Argo one of the best 11 films of 2012, critic Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote: “Ben Affleck’s seamless direction catapults him to the forefront of Hollywood filmmakers turning out thoughtful entertainment.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 4/4 stars, calling it “spellbinding” and “surprisingly funny”. Ebert chose it as his best film of the year.
The Washington Times said it felt “like a movie from an earlier era — less frenetic, less showy, more focused on narrative than sensation” but that the script included “too many characters that he doesn’t quite develop.”
The craft in this film is rare. It is so easy to manufacture a thriller from chases and gunfire, and so very hard to fine-tune it out of exquisite timing and a plot that’s so clear to us we wonder why it isn’t obvious to the Iranians. After all, who in their right mind would believe a space opera was being filmed in Iran during the hostage crisis?
Literary critic Stanley Fish says that the film is a standard caper film in which “some improbable task has to be pulled off by a combination of ingenuity, training, deception and luck.” He goes on to describe the film’s structure: “(1) the presentation of the scheme to reluctant and unimaginative superiors, (2) the transformation of a ragtag bunch of ne’er-do-wells and wackos into a coherent, coordinated unit and (3) the carrying out of the task.” Although he thinks the film is good at building and sustaining suspense, he concludes,
This is one of those movies that depend on your not thinking much about it; for as soon as you reflect on what’s happening rather than being swept up in the narrative flow, there doesn’t seem much to it aside from the skill with which suspense is maintained despite the fact that you know in advance how it’s going to turn out. … Once the deed is successfully done, there’s really nothing much to say, and anything that is said seems contrived. That is the virtue of an entertainment like this; it doesn’t linger in the memory and provoke afterthoughts.
Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian writer and radio figure of Iranian descent, thought the film had a “deeply troubling portrayal of the Iranian people”. Ghomeshi asserted “among all the rave reviews, virtually no one in the mainstream media has called out [the] unbalanced depiction of an entire ethnic national group, and the broader implications of the portrait.” He also suggested that the timing of the film was poor, as American and Iranian political relations were at a low point. A November 3, 2012 article in the Los Angeles Times claimed that the film had received very little attention in Tehran. The article referred to a review by Masoumeh Ebtekar, whose memoirs are the only Iranian narrative of the events.
The film is nominated for seven Academy Awards except in the Director category. Following the announcement of the nominations, Bradley Cooper, whose film, Silver Linings Playbook was nominated in several categories, said: “Ben Affleck got robbed”. This opinion is shared by the ceremony’s host Seth MacFarlane and Quentin Tarantino.
Entertainment Weekly wrote about this controversy:
Standing in the Golden Globe pressroom with his directing trophy, Affleck acknowledged that it was frustrating not to get an Oscar nod when many felt he deserved one. But he’s keeping a sense of humor. “I mean, I also didn’t get the acting nomination,” he pointed out. “And no one’s saying I got snubbed there!”
As of February 12, 2013, the film has earned $124,104,805 in the United States and Canada, and $76,100,000 in other countries, for a worldwide total of $200,204,805.