Argo: Declassified Extended Edition (2012)
If you are looking for a factually accurate account of the "Canadian Caper" then it may be advisable to read a book on the matter. If you’re happy to suffice with an entertaining movie that explores the complexity of international relations, the phoney nature of the movie industry and the machinations of the intelligence community then Argo has is for you. It's well written with solid performances and achieves that unique cinematic goal of keeping the viewer in a genuine state of tension, despite knowing in advance the historical outcome. Very few movies have successfully done this.
The plot revolves around an elaborate scheme to rescue six American Embassy staff who managed to escape the 1979 siege, who end up hiding out in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence. Central Intelligence Agency operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) devises an ingenious cover story in which the US diplomats take on the guise of a Canadian film production team who are scouting Iran for location for a Sci-Fi movie entitled "Argo". Despite the incredulity of his superior in the intelligence service and the State Department, Mendez seeks the aid of make-up artists John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Eventually circumstances and a lack of alternative options means the plan is put into effect but will it fool the Revolutionary Guard?
For me Argo is at its best when it explores the fake production for the movie that doesn't exist. The popularity of Sci-Fi on TV and in movies during the early eighties is cleverly referenced. A visit to Burbank Studios shows Cylons from Battlestar Galactica take a break and drinking coffee between scenes. The offices of Lester Siegel are adorned with genre movie posters and John Chambers trailer is filled with prosthetic memorabilia including a chimpanzee mask from Planet of the Apes. Alan Arkin and John Goodman excel in their respective roles and the banter between the two is priceless. When discussing a low budget movie he is working on, Chambers quips "The target audience will hate it". "Who's the target audience" Mendez asks. "People with eyes" retorts chambers.
The scenes in Tehran have an authentic feel to them and the production has gone to lengths to recreate a lot of the footage that was originally shown on network television at the time. The dynamics of the group of diplomats is very credible as they begin to panic over their fate. The final act as the group try and board a Swissair flight in the guise of a film production team is genuinely tense, especially when their credential are checked and an attempt is made to call the studio offices. The finale features a chase between troops in a truck and a Boeing 747. It is somewhat melodramatic but doesn't go so far as to jump the shark. After all this is a thriller and one expects a degree of tension.
The Declassified Extended Edition of Argo adds an additional ten minutes to the theatrical release. The material is mainly back story and character development, yet there are some crucial scenes that are expanded that shed a little more light into how Mendez came up with his idea for "Argo". These revolve around the CIA operative phoning his son and discussing what he's watching on television. This lead to an epiphany that Mendez has while channel surfing and catching a re-run of Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The extended edition does add a little more to the movie and makes for a more rounded cinematic experience.
Argo is an intriguing and dramatic story. It finds an even balance between nationalism and entertainment. The production values are high and the ensemble cast are outstanding. For anyone with a love of cinema who's over a certain age, then the early eighties setting will particularly resonate. It is interesting to revisit an era when movie hype was controlled by the industry trade press and that a full page promotional poster in Variety was sufficient to sell a production. It's also worth remembering that "Argo" was at one point, scheduled to be a genuine movie. The screenplay was based on Sci-Fi writer Roger Zelazny's novel Lords of Light and the storyboard and production art were created by legendary artist Jack Kirby. The production went into turnaround and the script ended up being procured by the CIA. Truth is often stranger than fiction.