When, about an hour into Argo, CIA "ex-fil specialist" Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) tells the six skeptical American diplomats under effective house that "his story is the only thing between them and a gun to their heads" it should sound pretty familiar. After all, Affleck (also the director) has spent the entire first act establishing just how unlikely and impossible the plan is.
It's early 1980 and more than seventy days after escaping the American embassy (turned hostage prison) in Tehran, six Americans have holed up in the Canadian ambassador's residence. With Tehran a police state overflowing with energetically violent anti-American protests, Mendez devises the "best worst idea" in the CIA: call the Americans a Canadian film crew location scouting for a B-science fiction called "Argo" and whisk them out on deep cover. Fortunately, the CIA has some friends in Hollywood on permanent retainer, including makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and washed up producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). They buy a script, storyboard the film, and, most importantly, to make it credible, hold a lavish press event in the Beverly Hilton, with an accompanying Variety story.
The apparently impossible and lavishly imagined plan presents something of a dramatic challenge – how to keep the heist plot plotting when we have very good reason to believe things will more or less work out. So we're reminded, at pretty much every turn that everyone thinks the odds are really, really bad, especially as the Iranian intelligence militia (much less bureaucratic than the CIA, it turns out) seems only minutes away from figuring out that they're missing six diplomats and that the movie's a sham.
Affleck's anxious, unsteady camera draws on the tension, danger, and claustrophobia of the house arrest and eventually the escape plan, though in the first half he spends more time following Mendez navigating State Department politics, pandering to the slick and self-absorbed of Hollywood, and selling his plan to higher-ups at the CIA. We see the houseguests in moments of generic intimacy, generic boredom, and generic fear, but we're given little reason to care about them as individuals. Instead, the film assumes that our sympathies will naturally attach to these innocent and well-intentioned Americans caught in a web of mostly unexplained (and largely untranslated) Muslim rage. If this sounds like a complaint that's because it is. But it's also the place where the film shows its hand.
There's a long tradition of Hollywood movies about Hollywood movies saving the world. Though few recent films have been so confident that this is the case there’s good reason to celebrate this especially implausible, amazing example: the Argo plot was declassified in 1997 and Affleck seems to have gone out of his way to remain loyal to the source, even casting virtual lookalikes.
But the proud triumph of Hollywood/CIA collusion isn't without some quiet self-criticism. As we learn in a voice over, the Iranian Revolution was due in no small part to persistent CIA intervention, including the 1953 assassination of left-leaning, oil-industry-nationalizing, democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh and his replacement by the brutal plutocrat preferred by the Americans, the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. And as we already know (and the film powerfully reaffirms) Hollywood lives by the cynical religion of the bottom line. What's ironic about the redemption story that Argo tries to tell is that it confirms everything the militants think about the overreaching, insidious, conspiratorial powers of "The Great Satan" – most saliently, that the Western culture industry and Western military intelligence industry are deep collaborators.
Argo asks us to shed our post-1989 reflexes and entertain the possibility that good people in bad institutions did the right thing during the Cold War. Perhaps. But it's a hard and untimely civics lessons to take in a moment of CIA prisons, CIA torture, and CIA assassin drones patrolling Central Asia.