As a narrator describes in a flat, newsreader tone how a semi-Westernized Middle Eastern nation has come in recent months under radical Islamic rule, a camera pans out to show its U.S. embassy under extreme duress. Mobs of angry Muslims stand outside its gates, burning American flags, throwing rocks, and chanting in Farsi. Standing next to a window inside the building, one diplomat asks another, “That glass is bulletproof right?” The other responds, “It’s supposed to be, but I don’t think it’s ever been tested.”
Then—possibly as part of a premeditated attack, possibly spurred on by the frenzy of protest, it’s too soon to tell—a group of militants leap the fence and descend on the compound, screaming mantras of revenge against “The Great Satan.” As they crowbar their way into side entrances, the camera jumps from room to room showing U.S. operatives using the last seconds before they’re blindfolded and dragged into the streets to destroy sensitive information. Given that this outpost sits in known hostile territory, we’re shocked to see just how minimal its security is.
What I’ve just described isn’t news footage from the 2012 attacks on our consulate in Benghazi or our embassy in Egypt but the opening scene from Ben Affleck’s latest film, Argo, a 1970s-era spy thriller that would probably be criticized for being too wild, too implausible, too Hollywood, if it all hadn’t really happened.
Based on the book Master of Disguise by former CIA “exfiltration specialist” Tony Mendez (Affleck), Argo relates the true, utterly incredible series of events that led to the rescue of six American diplomats in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis.
During the tumult of the embassy takeover, six mid-to low-level attachés manage to escape through a back door and make it to the Canadian embassy. Mendez’s plan to extract them (the best bad idea the CIA has, his boss explains) is to pose as a Canadian film producer whose crew is scouting locations for his sci-fi movie, “Argo.” To make the cover believable, Mendez requires not only the cooperation of higher-ups at the State Department, but also a couple of allies in Tinsel Town. One is John Chambers, the Oscar-winning make-up artist for Planet of the Apes, (John Goodman), the other is industry old-timer Lester Siegel (a composite character hilariously played by Alan Arkin).
There’s no way Affleck could have known when he began filming just how timely his story would prove. What would have simply been a gripping history lesson two months ago, now has the immediacy and anxiety of current headlines. As we see the scenes of terror unfold, we can’t help but mentally paste the images of Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans who died in Libya last month onto the actors’ faces. Yet with the exception of the minor audio clip of Jimmy Carter that runs over the final credits, Argo is surprisingly apolitical.
Affleck isn’t interested in assigning blame, but in the much more worthy goal of giving credit. Too often, our intelligence officers serve as lightning rods for criticism. Every failure of foreign policy is laid at their doorstep, yet the very nature of their nameless, faceless work means the public can never know the full extent of their victories. With a tale that is smart, riveting, yet also surprisingly personal and funny, Affleck manages to give the CIA the applause it so richly deserves but so rarely receives.
In this way, Argo serves not only as an expertly wrought piece of entertainment but also an act of patriotic tribute. (It should be noted that this tribute comes with a fairly constant peppering of R-rated language. Though, to be fair, the film’s oft-repeated F-bomb catchphrase was not screenwriter Chris Terrio’s invention. It was the actual tagline Mendez and his co-conspirators gave his mission.)
There’s little doubt that Affleck will get Oscar attention for Argo. There’s even less doubt that, for the rare feat of making a political movie Americans across the ideological spectrum can enjoy, he deserves it.