IMDB says... As the Iranian revolution reaches a boiling point, a CIA 'exfiltration' specialist concocts a risky plan to free six Americans who have found shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador.
The 73rd Virgin says... This is the best first-run movie I’ve seen this year. It is pretty much perfect. Tense, fast moving, very funny in spots and with a sense of sympathy for these small actors on the real world stage. The only comparison that pops to mind is “Apollo 13” and this is about as good.
We are immediately immersed in 1979 with the Warner Brothers logo in the mod rounded font of the era and even some spots on the film. It is like we are back in the god-awful tunnel-style mall-based multiplexes with which the movie business was trying to commit suicide at the time, before VHS and then classy cineplexes came along to save it.
In a clever opening we briefly review the British and American intelligence removal of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, and their re-installation of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in a 1953 coup. For reasons that don’t become clear until the end, this review is done with cartoonish movie story boards. This is followed by clips of the 1979 Iranian Revolution which chased the cancer-stricken Shah into exile. Not exile in any one of a dozen available jerk-water kingdoms, but exile in the already hated USA. Further clips show the Shah welcomed by President Carter and subsequent Iranian student protests, etc.
And the production design only gets better from there. In the first 15 minutes director Affleck swamps us in images of the time, including the decayed and crumbling Hollywood sign. Finally, we go to very tense documentary style film of the students going over the wall and, frankly, expertly breaking into the U.S. Embassy in Tehran while State Department employees scramble to shred or burn classified material and frantically call for the Iranian police who, it seems, will not be coming. This action is all beautifully shot.
This isn’t about the misery of the 53 hostages who would be held in semi-torturous conditions for 441 days, but about six Embassy employees who get ahead of the curve and escape through the streets of Tehran to the Canadian ambassador's house, where they are taken into to temporary hiding and relative safety. If they are detected, they could easily be tried as spies and hung.
From here we follow Affleck as CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez, on whose book this is based, as he first has to convince decision makers not to try to have the six captives bicycle their way 300 miles to the Turkish border through the Iranian winter. Instead he convinces them, in an example of the script’s audience-respecting and breathless use of jargon, to “send in a Moses” with a cover story to sneak the six out in plain sight.
Briefly stumped, the best cover story he can come up with is as a Canadian film crew who want to use Iranian scenery and the Tehran bazaar for a new movie.
But they need a movie. After the hostage taking and the clumsy planning, we need comic relief and we get it in the form of John Goodman as Hollywood make-up man John Chambers and Alan Arkin as producer Lester Siegel. Chambers has helped the CIA before and knows Siegel, a tough old war vet and old-style Hollywood deal-maker, well enough to try to get him involved. Siegel is at first reluctant, but in a great scene while watching news coverage, he mentions wryly that the Iranian students sure know how to get ratings, then sees footage of a bloody and blindfolded hostage, and Arkin - for the briefest and most undramatic moment - hardens his face and then looks away. It is great acting and directing. The greatest generation didn’t go for histrionics but most actors and directors would have played the scene to its obvious death. Here it is powerfully understated.
Goodman and Arkin have endless bitingly funny lines about the idiocy of their business. When Mendez explains that he can’t teach one of the hostages how to be a director in one day, Chambers replies “you can teach a rhesus monkey to be director in one afternoon.” Cutting to the chase, Mendez stumbles on a script for a cheesy sci-fi flick called “Argo”. With Hollywood in a Star Wars-induced sci-fi daze, the trio are off and running.
There’s no point in further explanation. After the humor, we know we are in for serious tension as Mendez heads first to Istanbul and then Tehran to begin the extraction. The six hostages are well-played and clearly delineated. Scoot McNairy is especially good as Joe Stafford, the most competent and arrogant and therefore uncooperative of the hostages. There are times when you just want to punch him. But the competence pays off. In a great late scene Mendez, like any good leader of men, realizes that one of his charges has this thing licked, and silently gets out of the way. Just perfect.
The Iranians are played as hair-trigger angry and utterly committed to the revolution, but not as buffoons. They are smart and prepared, which greatly adds to the tension.
To belabor the point, I can’t say enough about the production. 1979 comes alive. The film has the intense color saturation of the era; the fashions, hair, glasses, props are all perfect. The absence of cell phones and computers, and even answering machines, is felt in how difficult it is for the good guys – and the bad guys - to communicate with each other in an emergency.
Somehow Affleck, perhaps with help from fellow Executive Producer George Clooney, has extracted news footage from the networks so we are right back in our living rooms with a young Ted Koppel making a name for himself on ABC’s new-fangled show called Nightline. Without editorial comment we are shown footage of Mike Wallace’s craven bowing and scraping to the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Be that as it may, this is great high action, high drama, high intelligence movie-making. I pretty much gave up on Affleck after 2003’s “Paycheck”, although “The Town” was pretty good. I don’t know if he was ever really gone in anyone’s opinion other than my own, but boy is he back.
I haven’t read any of Mendez’s books so I don’t know how closely Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio followed reality. There is a great movie yet to be made about the other 53 hostages. Mark Bowden’s “Guests of the Ayatollah” would be good source material.
For a concise and depressing history of the CIA’s role in Iran from 1953 to 1979, see Tim Weiner’s "Legacy of Ashes – The History of the CIA", chapter 9.
Here’s a trailer that focuses more on humor and action than the superior tension.