In 1979 the American Embassy in Tehran was invaded by Iranian students and militants. For more than a year the American civil servants who worked in the Embassy are held hostage in the building in which they used to work. Just as the Embassy was invaded six diplomats managed to escape. Initially taken in by the Canadian ambassador the escapees become the subjects of a bizarre and fantastical rescue mission by the CIA.
Argo is a strange beast. The film opens with the American Embassy being stormed and six characters with bad haircuts escape amidst panic and violence. The tone is set for a serious drama about a serious international political event. As we are introduced to the CIA, and most importantly Ben Affleck as CIA specialist Tony Mendez, the tone remains serious – the six escapees must be rescued or all manner of unpleasant things might happen. However the minute John Goodman as John Chambers, Hollywood make-up expert and CIA… make-up artist, enters the film alongside Alan Arkin as film producer Lester Siegel the films starts to mix its tense drama with tongue-in-cheek Hollywood satire.
The plan that Mendez is pushing is one in which he, Chambers, and Siegel fake the production of a Sci-Fi adventure filming in Iran so that the six fugitives can be smuggled out of the country. As events in Iran are treated with a po-faced frown the parallel exploits of the characters (and I do mean characters!), are a light-hearted sideways look at Hollywood hype and many a line is delivered in such a way that Goodman and Arkin may as well turn to camera and give a knowing nod and wink.
With this odd mix of tones Affleck (taking on directing duties too) risks making a film that jars and fails to fully convey the seriousness of the real-life drama at its heart. Somehow Affleck actually makes this work with the silly Hollywood segments serving as a light relief to the endless angst and worrying from the characters (this time with no distinct personalities at all) in Iran. Argo is the perfect mix of humour and drama; it gives you a dramatic situation to keep you hooked but keeps you genuinely entertained as events unfold.
One place Argo does misjudge things (ignoring some historical inaccuracies) are in its climax. As the plan reaches fruition and the motley crew finally try to leave Iran we are presented with a seemingly endless stream of near miss disasters. Absolutely nothing happens until the absolutely last possible second. Even their plane tickets home aren’t confirmed until the woman checking them in has searched the bookings once. The film is tense enough without every “will they make it?” moment being followed by another five.
Argo is a rare example of the fun historical/political drama and is in UK cinemas 7th November 2012.