This is a real movie about a fake movie that was used in a real effort to rescue Americans from Iran in 1980.
A cozy, somewhat messy apartment somewhere in L.A. Two people sit on a pair of olive-colored chairs in a living room carpeted in orange shag.
Writer is a disheveled, bespectacled, sorta nerdy guy with long hair and sideburns. He fidgets a lot.
Agent is a man in a black suit and dark sunglasses. He never fidgets.
Writer: So you want to buy my script! That's dynamite, man! I've been waiting for a break like this!
Agent: I can imagine.
Writer: Yeah, man. The ideas have been just, you know, runnin' around in my brain for years, man. Love all that—hey, you want some coffee or something?
Agent: I never drink on the job.
Writer: Oh, sure. Anyway, love all that sci-fi stuff from way back. You know, phasers and pointy ears and big, black dominos from outer space. And with Star Wars and all, I knew it was just a matter of time before someone caught my vision, man, and fell in love with Argo.
Writer: (Pause) So what happens next?
Agent: What do you mean?
Writer: Well, you know. When does filming begin? Casting? All that stuff?
Agent: It won't.
Writer: (Longer pause) It won't?
Agent: That's right.
Writer: Soooo … you bought my script and … that's it?
Agent: (Leaning forward) Listen, can I be frank?
Writer: Man, you bought my script! You can be anyone you want!
Agent: We hate the script. We think you have the talent of a mollusk. But we plan to use it to help six Americans escape from Iran in 1980 which, as anyone could tell by your sideburns and your apartment's tasteful shag carpeting, is this year. The whole plan is very complex and completely confidential, but in short it involves those six Americans (with help from an understated CIA agent) masquerading as a Canadian film crew. Using your script as a pretext, they'll hopefully fool Iranian security, board a plane and return home again to a hero's welcome.
Writer: (Longest pause) Man, that sounds way better than anything I wrote.
Agent: I agree.
Writer: Hey! So what if I, like, wrote a screenplay based on that? On what you just told me?
Agent: Don't be daft, man. No one would believe it.
Reviewer's note: The scene above is entirely fictitious. I'm sure the original Argo screenplay was a brilliant, underappreciated work. But the story of the movie Argo—the real fictional movie—is based on true events. As is this movie about that fake movie and the real story that surrounded it.
Both the real story and its cinematic rendition feature moments of courage, bravery and ingenuity. At the center of it all is CIA extract specialist Tony Mendez. The film thing is his idea, we're told—not a particularly good one, he admits, but there aren't a lot of options for getting Americans out of Iran in 1980. "This is the best bad idea we have, sir," Tony's boss tells his higher-up. "By far."
To implement the outlandish plan will require a great deal of creativity, courage … and buy-in from some Hollywood elites. Tony gets help from Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel, who give the scheme credibility and some behind-the-scenes help. But it's Tony who's taking the biggest risk: He must fly into Tehran, teach his six diplomats how to be a credible movie crew in two days and somehow get them aboard an outbound aircraft. If the plan fails, Tony dies just like everybody else. And he winds up facing down his own government along with the Iranians to save the people depending on him.
Those six Americans take a huge risk themselves, of course, but they have no other real recourse. Not so the Canadian ambassador and his wife, who hide the Americans from Iranian prying eyes for months. If the Iranian government had ever discovered that their "guests" were American, they would've surely been tried as spies and executed. When their Iranian housekeeper pieces together the truth, she too keeps quiet, protecting both her bosses and their guests.
There's some danger Stateside too—though the stakes aren't as high. Jack, Tony's supervisor, risks his career to push the stalled plan forward when it looks like Tony and the six Americans might be left for dead. Other bureaucrats also manage to look past their own selfish interests in an effort to get the Americans home.
We also see lots of hints related to the importance of family. [Spoiler Warning] Tony and his wife are "taking a break" from each other when the movie opens. But by the time he returns from Iran, we see that his wife is incredibly happy to welcome him home, and whatever differences they had must've been smoothed over. In a tile before the credits, we read that the real Tony and his family live together still in rural Maryland.
We see Tony stay in as close contact with his son as circumstances allow, sharing a phone conversation with him while they watch the same B movie from different cities. He sends a postcard to his son, making sure to say how much he loves him—and his mom too.
Argo takes place in the teeth of the Iranian revolution, which means that the most radical manifestation of Islam is a prime player in this drama. We're given a brief, hand-drawn Iranian history lesson at the film's open, telling us how the last shah tried to Westernize the country, angering many of its conservative Shiite citizens. Posters and pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's theocratic ruler, stare down from almost every wall, lending the city of Tehran a Big Brother-like feel. We don't see Muslims engaged in many prayers or religious activities (a couple of people use what appear to be prayer beads while praying silently), but we strongly sense the cultural clash between Iran's Islam-based values and the secular West.
One of the six Americans places what appears to be a Catholic prayer card in his copy of the Argo screenplay. Tony turns his eyes upward once, as if saying a silent prayer of thanks. A person who does Tony's job of extraction is called a "Moses," and Iranian militants are derisively referred to as "Jehovah's Witnesses" (referencing their penchant for banging on doors). We see a famous Orthodox mural of Christ.
In the opening, we see a drawing of a nude woman (mostly from the rear, with part of her breast visible). Women in a sci-fi film wear outfits with plunging necklines (down, essentially, to their navels). Ladies at an Argo launch/script-reading party wear sci-fi garb that reveals lots of skin. (In some cases, their nipples are just barely covered.)
Americans are blindfolded, threatened with guns and shoved around when the embassy is overrun. Months later, a handful of hostages are taken by their captors and led to the basement, their faces covered with bags. [Spoiler Warning] They're lined up in a row as their captors point rifles at them. The order is given to shoot. (The guns turn out to be empty.)
When Tony and his six Americans meet an Iranian official in a bazaar, their VW bus is jostled and thumped by a crowd of demonstrators. And when an Iranian takes exception to one of the women taking pictures in the bazaar, things get ugly: Locals begin shouting and screaming, and it looks as though the confrontation is just seconds from turning bloody. Indeed, nearly every encounter here has the feel of a tightrope walk, where any false step or errant gust could mean disaster. A Marine warns his nervous comrades that if they shoot one person in the crowd, everyone in the embassy will likely die. (Tear gas launched into a raging crowd has no affect.)
We see a man shot in the gut. (The camera's some distance away.) A man hangs dead from a construction crane. Someone runs through what appears to be a puddle of blood. We see news clips of violence and protests; and we catch hand-drawn glimpses of the old shah's cruelty to his people (most notably an illustration of a bloodied man being tortured). Iranians push down and jostle people and shoot doors (trying to open them).
Tony compares his job to that of an abortionist.
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word is used about 25 times, the s-word another 10 or so. Jesus' name is abused three or four times, while God's name is misused more than a half-dozen (often paired with "d‑‑n"). We also hear "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard," "h‑‑‑" and "pr‑‑k." Someone flips the bird.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Ashtrays are filled to the brim with butts as characters smoke incessantly, including (how bizarre it looks to us these days) on an airplane. Folks also drink often—wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. Tony drinks heavily throughout, even taking a full bottle of whiskey back to his hotel. (He never appears to be drunk.) We know when an airplane is clear of Iranian airspace by the announcement that drinks can now be served.
Other Negative Elements
We hear references to both canine and human testicles. A guy says he used a urinal next to Warren Beatty.
"I'm asking you to trust me," Tony tells Joe Stafford, one of the guys he's trying to rescue.
"I don't trust you," Joe says.
It's a refreshing bit of honesty in a movie predicated almost entirely on deception. (A secret-ops sort of governmental deception, granted, but deception none the less.) If I were in Joe's shoes, I'd have a hard time trusting much of anyone in the circumstances presented here—particularly someone who said that pretending to be part of a Canadian film crew was the best chance I had to escape. Joe wants a better option. He needs a better option, because this one seems little more than a convoluted suicide attempt. But there is none, and he's finally forced to trust a guy he's known for a total of two days.
For folks considering a trip to watch Argo, though, we have an almost inverse situation. This is a movie you want to trust. It's both serious and fun—a taut drama with some gravitas, an old-fashioned thriller with a happy ending. It's got some great messages. It's going to win some awards.
But we can't quite escape the more than two-dozen f-words that are fired from the screen—including those in the oft-repeated catchphrase "Argo f‑‑‑ yourself!" And while reports indicate that valiant efforts were made to make the film feel accurate, neither can we take it as complete historical perfection. Movies always change the details to protect the story flow. Always. So Argo is still a movie—entertainment—not a meticulously researched historical documentary. And as such it can only be trusted so much—and no more.