When I entered the theater to watch Argo, I knew little about the Iranian hostage crisis. The movie is based on real events; it portrays the unlikely escape of six American diplomats from Tehran during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. A historical thriller directed by and starring Ben Affleck, Argo was released on DVD on February 19, 2013.
The film begins at the cusp of the conflict, in the final moments before the occupation of the American embassy in Tehran. Angry crowds bang on the doors, and papers flutter as embassy workers scramble to destroy classified information. Amid havoc, six Americans leave quietly through a back exit. They make their way through the streets before they reach the Canadian ambassador’s house, where they seek haven until they can leave Iran.
While the group waits in hiding, tensions mount. The escapees watch television coverage of the crisis they’ve narrowly escaped: people rally in the streets, a young Iranian woman makes demands to the US government in front of its embassy in Tehran, the revolution grows louder. It becomes clear the six Americans cannot remain with the Canadian ambassador indefinitely. The housemaid, an Iranian woman, appears to have understood who they are. It is unclear whether she will turn them in.
Cue Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, a CIA exfiltration specialist (he “gets people out”). Mendez arrives from Washington DC with a plan that might free them: the escapees will pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting for a science-fiction film. Affleck’s character is a strong protagonist. Not strong in a kick-ass, feel-good, secret agent-meets-Hollywood sort of way (though there are a few of these moments in the film), but realistically strong. Tony Mendez is no Jason Bourne, he is just a man doing his job. He’s not sure he will succeed, and is keenly aware of the lives that rest on him. Affleck’s skill is most visible in his character’s human moments. When Mendez addresses the hostages, whose fate depends on their ability to memorize their newly assigned identities, I feel as though Affleck is looking out past the camera’s lens to address me.
For a movie about a hostage crisis, Argo is surprisingly limited in its depictions of violence; it has an on-screen body count of two. The first time we encounter evidence of violence, it is in the form of a body hanging from a crane, which Mendez drives past in a taxi on his first day in Tehran. The camera does not dwell on this, but continues past, with Mendez. In another subtly-treated scene, we bear witness to a shooting. The camera looks out of a third story window, following the gaze of the maid, who is drawn to the vantage by the noise in the alley below. There, two rebels jostle a man who begins to plead for his life. Guns fire and he falls to the ground. (At this point, I gasped.) The shooting feels inevitable, yet sudden. The camera doesn’t dwell on the scene. There is (thankfully) no accompanying music. The cut is clean, short, realistic. It bears impact.
While the threat of violence in Argo kept me in suspense, its moments of kindness were what most affected me. In one scene, the Iranian housekeeper (whom we fear to be unreliable) comes to the front gate of the ambassador’s residence, where a heavily armed militia van has pulled up. The group’s leader demands that she open the gate; the woman refuses. When he asks her whether the ambassador has had any American houseguests, she denies their presence. The man appears sceptical, but leaves with his gang, temporarily satisfied. It is here that Argo offers the most poignant reminder of what it means to be human, to risk one’s own life to protect others.
As a portrayal of a rescue mission, Argo certainly delivers. But it does not attempt to tell a larger story, the story of oppression and retaliation. I found myself sympathizing with the plight of the hostages, but wondering about the treatment of other characters in the film. Argo portrays the Iranian people (with the exception of the housekeeper) as gun-bearing revolutionaries, eager to capture the escaped hostages. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. agents are the good guys. Of course—spoiler alert—it crescendos in an airport chase scene (an irresistible Hollywood flourish), Iranian rebels hot on the tail of the plane as it rolls down the landing strip for takeoff, building speed.
My reservations about this film concern its focus. I get the feeling that the subject matter in Argo is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. A hostage is a clear victim. But what about the young woman with the microphone who makes demands before the cameras? What about the men protesting the Shah’s regime, or the men shooting guns? Government agents and hostages each have clear motives, but so do captors and revolutionaries.
And what about the people in between, citizens like the housekeeper who are caught in the whirlpool of conflict? As someone who did not live through the Iranian hostage crisis, I find myself relating the situation in Argo to that in Iraq, a war that has taken place during my own lifetime. I cannot help but think of ways in which policies decided in Washington shape the lives of people in cities across the Atlantic, people I will neither see nor meet, and I wonder, what side of the story am I missing?
At the end of the film, we see the housekeeper, shawl-clad and on foot, crossing a security check point on the border with Iraq. Behind her, a line of other Iranian refugees awaits their turn. This, undoubtedly, is ample subject matter to merit a movie of its own.