Joe Stafford: You really believe your little story's gonna make a difference when there's a gun to our heads? Tony Mendez: I think my story's the only thing between you and a gun to your head.
Argo is a 2012 drama/thriller directed by Ben Affleck, and produced by Affleck, Grant Heslov and George Clooney. It is a somewhat fictionalized account of a real CIA operation in 1980 to extract six Americans during the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.With tensions building in the already-volatile Iran, a group of revolutionaries storm the United States embassy and take a number of staff members hostage. Six employees in a neighbouring building manage to escape, however, and take up refuge in the official residence of the Canadian Ambassador. Ten weeks later, exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is asked by the CIA to help get them out of the country. Working with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist/director John Chambers (John Goodman), Mendez devises a plan to get the employees out of the country by having them pose as a production crew scouting locations for an unproduced science-fiction script called Argo.With their options limited and the Iranian revolutionaries stepping up their search for the missing Americans, it's up to the three men and their CIA contact, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), to get the six employees out.The film was adapted from the true story of the declassified 1979 rescue mission, and was the third directorial effort for Affleck after Gone Baby Gone and The Town. It won the Oscar for Best Picture as well as Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay.
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Accentuate the Negative: Throughout the movie, and particularly in the intro, Argo describes the deposed Shah of Iran as The Caligula — a cruel, decadent, despotic puppet of the United States who forced foreign trends on his people all while living in uncaring luxury as the country went down the toilet. While these facts were individually accurate, the film neglects to present the positive aspects of the Shah's rule that were also there, such as religious tolerance and equal rights for women. Though it made sense in the context of showing why the Iranians were so angry throughout the film, it isn't quite an accurate summary of his reign.
In fairness, the film does mention that the Shah proceeded to westernize Iran, a phrase which carries connotations of modernizing the country, amid shots of women training to be doctors or scientists. They also mentioned that this angered the religious extremists, who would seize power after his rule.
Adult Fear: Being caught in the middle of political unrest. Hell, being a hostage in general. Anything relating to your children's safety, and used by Jack O'Donnell, Brian Cranston's character to force a call to the White House Chief of Staff.
The film has Mendez (a CIA agent) take the lead and ultimate responsibility for rescuing the employees trapped in the country. It raised some complaints in Canada for emphasizing the CIA role in the extraction and deemphasizing the role of the Canadians (see Focus Group Ending). The film makes it clear that the Canadians are taking a big risk hiding the Americans and their participation in the extraction operation is vital such as supplying passports, but the ambassador knows that everyone is in danger and is trying to find a way that doesn't involve his house-guests getting executed, even if it means agreeing with the plan to turn the hostages directly in to the Embassy, so they can be extracted by Delta Force. The film has also been criticized for the Historical Villain Upgrade given to Britain and New Zealand. In the film, British and New Zealand diplomats refuse to help the refugees; in reality, they both offered help and the British actually hosted the Americans for a short time, before it was decided it was safer for them to be with the Canadians, while a New Zealander drove the Americans to the airport and another coached them on the roles.
Art Imitates Life: In the credits, photos of the real people and events are shown next to recreations from the film. Notably, the shot of the body hanging from the crane was toned down — the photo that inspired it has three cranes-turned-gallows.
Badass: Tony out-thinks Joint Chiefs of Staff, walks into Iran during the hostage crisis, and walks out with 6 hostages, unharmed and undetected, all the while never losing his cool.
Badass Beard: Tony has one. Ben Affleck even grew it back for the 2013 awards season.
The recording by President Carter played during the credits calls attention to the fact that all hostages were brought home peacefully.
Based on a True Story: Most of the tensest scenes in the movie—the location scout, the CIA brass trying to kill the plan, the nail-biting escape from the airport—didn't happen. (The actual exit from Teheran airport went off perfectly, and was done at five o'clock in the morning.) And since the CIA didn't try to kill the plan, the Canadian ambassador never suggested destroying the passports and abandoning the plan; this last part annoyed folks in Canada (see America Saves the Day above). Also, the movie portrays Mendez as estranged from his wife and living alone in a tiny garret, subsisting on leftover Chinese takeout; in real life, Mendez was a successful artist (he had started at the CIA as document forger—referenced in the film in a scene where he's creating a fake Soviet passport) who lived with his wife and their children on a converted farm in Virginia.
Big Fancy House: Siegel's Hollywood mansion, which has a room full of the awards he's won and a massive swimming pool.
Brick Joke: Seigel tells how a waitress complained about what the Canadians had done in freeing the hostages. "How come we can't do something like that?" Instead of blowing security, Siegel naturally replied: "Argo fuck yourself!"
Burn Baby Burn/Fiery Coverup: Subverted. As the protestors try to scale the walls of the embassy, the staff is ordered to destroy any incriminating evidence that might lead to Iranian retaliation down the line. Two staffers try to use an incinerator to dispose of classified and sensitive data, but it breaks shortly thereafter, and they are captured while trying to shred the rest. The revolutionaries then use sweatshop workers to reassemble the shredded documents and learn the identities of the missing employees.
Call Back: When Tony is flying into Iran, a flight attendant informs the passengers that they are revoking alcoholic beverages upon entering the country's airspace. Similarly, an attendant informs everyone that alcohol is available again when they fly out of Iranian airspace. This time, Tony has the hostages in tow.
The Cameo: Michel Parks has a brief, "blink and you'll miss it" role as comic book legend Jack Kirby, who was responsible for drawing the Argo concept art in Real Life (you can see his storyboards here). He's never explicitly named in the dialogue, but the ending credits confirm that it's him.
Philip Baker Hall and Bob Gunton make a brief appearance as a pair of senior CIA officials.
Canadian Accents: Mendez warns one of the six to pronounce "Toronto" as "Torono", because "Canadians don't pronounce the "t", and assures them that if the guards get suspicious, they will find someone aware of this obscure fact.
Oddly enough, he doesn't seem the least bit concerned about whether any of the supposed "Canadians" speak French (even though one of them has clearly been given a birthplace of Quebec as part of their cover story).
Checkpoint Charlie: Discussed at length by the main characters. Mendez and the employees have to get through three checkpoints of escalating scrutiny at the Iranian airport in order to make their flight.
Chekhov's Gun: Every part of the production constructed by Mendez, Chambers and Siegel is studied by the Iranians at one point or another later in the film: the fake business card, the phone line, the Variety article on the making of the film and the storyboards.
Commander Contrarian: Joe Stafford takes great offense to the plan to get himself and his co-workers out of the country, and refuses to participate until Mendez tells him his real name and background - and even then, he's still very cynical of the whole operation. At one point, Mendez's boss orders that they be turned in to the Embassy, as Delta Force is prepping to extract the hostages from the Embassy. We all know how THAT went. Fortunately, Mendez continues with the op.
Tony Mendez actually had three children. His one son in the film was orginally named Michael, after the oldest, but he asked for it to be changed to Ian, the youngest, who had recently died of colon cancer.
The Culture official that interviews Mendez suggests that they want their movie to be about "the exotic Orient... snake charmers, magic carpets."
Development Hell: The "official status" of the Argo film project after all was said and done.
Diplomatic Impunity: Averted. The Iranian revolutionaries completely disregard any American diplomatic privileges once they take power. Later, that includes the Canadian staff the moment they realize they're harboring American fugitives, but the Canadians made their escape from the country before it happened.
Disappeared Dad: Mendez hasn't been back to see his wife and son in quite some time due to his work with the CIA, and he finally gets home to Virginia to see them at the end of the film.
Does This Remind You of Anything?: When Tony is showing the Iranian airport security the storyboards for the film, the plot Joe Stafford describes in Farsi sounds a lot like the Iranian Revolution IN SPACE, which is part of what makes the guards let them through.
Doomed by Canon: Averted, but played with in an odd way. At one point, the operation is ordered to be cancelled, the six escapees told to be turned in to the Iranian-controlled embassy, as they are to be rescued by Delta Force in an operation of their own. Said operation ended in complete failure.
Dramatic Irony: The initial assessment is the hostage crisis will blow over in 24 hours. It lasts 444 days.
The Iranian woman working as the housekeeper seeks safety in another country. It's Iraq.
Drowning My Sorrows: Subverted. After O'Donnell calls Mendez to let him know he's canceling the mission, the latter begins to drink in his hotel room... only to throw the mostly-full bottle on the bed a short time later before making a decision.
Eiffel Tower Effect: The Azadi Tower in Tehran and the Hollywood sign both make aerial-montage appearances, with the latter shown in decrepit condition (anachronistically so, apparently for symbolic reasons; it had been restored in 1978).
Embarrassing Cover Up: Inverted in that it is not played for comedy — this is the reason why, halfway through the film, the op is cancelled and Mendez is ordered to turn in the six Americans to the Embassy, where Delta Force will extract them.
Six Americans get pulled out of a Canadian diplomat's house and executed, it's a world outrage. Six Americans get caught playing movie make-believe with the CIA at the airport and executed? It's a national embarrassment.
555: On the business card for the fake production company, Cloud 6.
Focus Group Ending: When the film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Canadian audience and media didn't take kindly to it appearing to claim that their government didn't really help the six Americans they were sheltering escape Iran. Affleck decided they had a point and rewrote the postscript text at the end, saying the CIA operation complemented the Canadian Government's efforts and the affair remains a shining example of international cooperation in times of crisis.
In real life, the Iranian government announced a response to the film, The General Staff, which is to be a counterpoint to the film and focuses on twenty hostages released by Iran. note Which is a bit of a stretch, as they only released thirteen, initially — Iran let thirteen African-Americans go, because they felt that Africans were oppressed by US imperialism and sympathized with the civil rights plight.
The Greatest Story Never Told: At a time when the US Government is being strongly criticized for failing to free the hostages, the CIA's role has to remain secret to avoid retaliation on the remaining captives. Mendez couldn't even accept his medal from the CIA until the mission was officially acknowledged years later.
Grenade Hot Potato: During the storming of the embassy, a U.S. soldier fires a smoke grenade into a crowd. One of the participants in the riot immediately picks it up and lobs it back in the military's general direction.
Guile Hero: Tony Mendez embodies this entirely in how he manages to get six people who are being hunted by an entire country in the most dangerous and publicized part of the world at the time with nothing but a producer and a makeup artist handling the logistics. He and the six escapees make it out of Iran despite everything being on the line. His expression also barely changes.
For elements of the story which emphasize the CIA role in the extraction at the expense of the Canadians and others, see America Saves the Day above.
The Argo script was selected by John Chambers, not Mendez.
There was no original unused script called Argo. The actual Argo script was a re-treatment of a script for a film that was based on Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light. That film was seriously intended to be made (along with a sci-fi theme park in Colorado that would permanently feature the film's sets) but several things conspired to abort the film.
Jack Kirby wasn't commissioned for the fake Argo movie. His conceptual artwork had already existed from the aborted but serious attempt to film Lord of Light.
The setup for the film was more low key, there was no read-through with actors in costume. Posters, a story in a magazine, business cards, and a telephone number were it. The number was in fact called by the Iranians, but before the 6 were evacuated.
Mendez was not sent alone to Iran; he had several assistants.
In the film, Mendez and the passengers barely make it through the checkpoint and onto the plane before the Iranian guards discover the ruse and run to try and catch the departing flight, ending with them chasing it down a runway in several vehicles. In real life, the passengers went through the airport without incident, and were never spotted or suspected during their time there. One of the real-life persons involved, Robert Anders (played by Tate Donovon), recalled that he had to go through less security in Tehran in 1980, than in Toronto in 2012 to come see the film. However, the film does not mention the mechanical failure suffered by the real aircraft Mendez and the group left on.
Mendez actually came to Tehran with several escape scenarios, and the final one was chosen by the groups themselves.
The group were not holed up in the Canadian ambassadors home, they stayed at two different places and they did move about the city, although rarely.
Far from being estranged from his wife, Mendez was on good terms with her -– she drove him to the airport. He did return his wedding band, but that is apparently SOP for agents going overseas.
Horrible Hollywood: As Chambers describes it, Hollywood is full of hacks and untalented people or productions, funded by people only in it for the money. A shot of the famous Hollywood sign missing some letters (When in reality, it had been fixed up by that time) underscores it and one of the reasons for disguising the operation as a movie is that movie producers are some of the only people sleazy enough to still be doing business there, in the middle of a crisis.
Tony: It's an exfil, from the worst place you can think of...
Hostage Situation: A government official at the embassy goes outside to reason with the hostile crowd, and immediately gets captured. He is then used as a Human Shield to bluff the soldiers guarding the door to open up and let the crowd storm the building.
Hypocrite: The Republican Guard who stand in the way of the protagonists drop their Moral Guardians pretenses upon seeing scenes from the fake film when it sucks up to their expectations. They even pass slides around of the half-naked heroine, which, in a heavily conservative state, would be frowned upon.
Invisible President: Downplayed. Jimmy Carter is mentioned several times and shown in stock footage, but is not portrayed in the film; his final approval for the mission comes via telex. Over the credits there is an audio excerpt of a Carter interview, where he talks about the mission.
Jerkass With A Heart Of Gold: Lester Siegel may be a crotchety, foul-mouth, wheeling, dealing, manipulative, cynical old bastard estranged from his family, but the moment he's asked to save the hostages he steps up to the plate.
Just in Time: The climatic airport sequence has a whole series of them: first, Swiss Air initially has no reservations to confirm, until the CIA approves it in time. They then come to the pre-boarding screening, where they're singled out by the Revolutionary Guard, who asks them what the group is doing there. The Guards decide to hold them until they get some form of approval — which would be nice if Chambers and Siegel weren't being held up by a film outside their office. Chambers manages to answer in time after Siegel walks through the set, just as the Guard on the other end is about to hang up. Then the Sweatshop completes one of the shredded ID files from the Embassy, and a militiaman rushes to inform the Guards — by this time, the group has already boarded, and the plane is taxiing. The Guards attempt to block the taxi and shoot out the tires, but the plane's too fast.
Kick the Dog: The mock execution (which was unfortunately Truth in Television) seemed to serve no purpose beyond terrifying the hostages and being an extremely cruel joke by the hostage takers.
Logo Joke: The 1972-84 stylized-W-in-a-CRT-screen-shape Warner Brothers logo was used.
Life Imitates Art: Just as this film (based on actual events) was released, US missions in Libya, Egypt and Sudan were attacked. Perhaps the greatest coincidence? The head of the US Embassy in Sudan, Joseph Stafford, was one of the house guests portrayed in the film. An interview with Stafford can be found here.
Limited Wardrobe: Mendez wears the exact same blue blazer throughout the film (although he wears different shirts underneath), while the employees keep the same clothes through the entirety of their time at the embassy.
Mobstacle Course: Mendez and the employees are forced to drive through a hostile crowd on their way to a production meeting with a government official. Said meeting with the government official also nearly triggers another one, when people are trying to figure out what's the ruckus being made by an angry shopkeeper, who assaults the official.
Mood Whiplash: From spy thriller to hostage drama to Hollywood satire, most dramatically when a press event involving the Argo script being read by the cast is intercut with the Iranian radicals conducting a mock execution of their captives.
Moral Guardians: The Revolutionary Guard are initially disgusted by the (by conservative Islamic standards) half-naked girl on the Argo cover.
The Moral Substitute: The Iranian government is developing their own film based on the events, referred to as "an appropriate response to the ahistoric film 'Argo'," titled The General Staff.
Mundane Made Awesome: This movie runs on this trope. Explaining movie script? Awesome. Picking up a phone call? Awesome. Sitting in a plane? Awesome!
Nerd Glasses: Several characters sport very large circa-1979 glasses.
Nerves of Steel: Tony walks in and out of an extremely hostile Iran with his expression barely shifting.
No One Gets Left Behind: Mendez's motto, which he explains at the beginning to O'Donnell, and again during a later conversation.
Not So Different: Footage of Iranian protesters burning American flags outside the embassy is shown, and then immediately after footage of American protesters burning Iranian flags outside of the consulate is shown to mirror their attitudes.
Oh Crap: The receptionist in the U.S. embassy once she realizes the mob has broken through the front line defenses and are running into their offices. She simply says, "They're here," and puts down the phone with a frozen expression. Most of the staffers can only stare as hordes of protesters swarm in and angrily take them hostage. note In real life, most of the embassy personnel were able to retreat to an emergency shelter.
Photo Montage: In the credits, stills from the movie are paired with photographs of the real people and some of the real events involved.
Plot Tailored to the Party: The exfiltration mission is set up so that the employees will all assume the roles of a production crew. During the last half of the film, all of them are required to have at least one moment emphasizing their assigned skill (Anders is asked questions about the style of movie he's making, Kathy takes photographs of the local market, Lijek films with a handheld camera, Lee and Cora answer questions about themselves at the checkpoint, and Joe ultimately saves the party by explaining the plot of the film in Farsi to the security at the Iranian airport).
Precision F-Strike: O'Donnell has several, perhaps most notably concluding a rant at a superior for not backing up him and his operation: "DO YOUR FUCKING JOB."
And of course, as Lester Siegel is asked what the title "Argo" means: "It means 'Argo fuck yourself!'"
Public Execution: While traveling to the Canadian embassy for the first time, Mendez passes a male civilian who was hanged, with people casually walking by below.
Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right: After O'Donnell calls to say the mission has been scrapped, Mendez mulls it over, calls him back in the morning and says he's going to see it through anyway because he won't leave anyone behind. This causes the CIA to scramble to make sure the operation is maintained.
Self-Deprecation: A good chunk of the movie makes fun of Hollywood, especially the roles of producers.
Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck who was also the producer, is told to his face that he can't be the producer, he doesn't have the look, and is an associate producer at best.
Even the CIA gets in on the act. "This is the best bad idea we have, sir... by far."note The best idea they had before Argo was to get the embassy members onto bikes — motorized or not — and go 300 miles to the border — in winter — to be picked up. Mendez mocked the plan, asking where they would get a support crew to follow the riders to refuel or fix any problems.
The way Jack Stafford describes the plot of Argo (in Farsi) to the Revolutionary Guard at the airport, complete with sound effects, is reminiscent of C-3PO telling the ewoks about the Rebel Alliance in Return of the Jedi.
While most of the costumes at the screenplay reading are Star Wars ripoffs (including what appears to be a Chewbacca costume dyed blue), the "villain"'s outfit is a blatant Ming the Merciless imitation.
Shown Their Work: During the closing credits, as the film shows photos of real people and events next to shots from the film.
Show Within a Show: Argo, a fake movie meant as an escape plan for the six Americans on the loose.
Single Tear: When Mendez arrives in the airport, a Revolutionary Guard roughs up a civilian. Shortly after, there's a lingering shot of a terrified Muslim woman, with a single tear dropping down her eye.
The Stoic: Despite being surrounded by a nation full of hostiles, a terrified bunch of houseguests, and a nigh-impossible mission in his hands, Tony maintains a calm, bland face for most of the movie. Not all the time, though.
Stylistic Suck: In addition to being similar to the Iranian Revolution itself, the Argo script is a knowingly-cheesy Star Wars ripoff that takes very heavy Middle Eastern influencesnote the actual source novel, Lords of Light, takes from Middle Eastern and Indian mythology, complete with laser guns and robots. During the table reading, the crew reads out parts while dressed in Chambers' cheap sci-fi costumes.
Token Enemy Minority: Sahar, the Iranian housekeeper at the Canadian ambassador's house makes it apparent that she's figured out who the houseguests are fairly early into the movie, but keeps them a secret when the Revolutionary Guard shows up to ask her if the six have been staying at her house. In the end, she flees to Iraq, either because of this, or because she had no sympathy for the revolution.
What Happened to the Mouse?: The VW van. Presumably it got left in the car park, but it appears they just decamp at the set-down area "There is no stopping in the Red Zone, the White Zone is for..". It doesn't look like Mendez hired it from Hertz, so there there wasn't a key-drop. Maybe there was valet parking...
More significantly, test audiences were initially very concerned about Sahar, the Taylors' Iranian maid, so a final scene was added showing her escaping into Iraq.
Wine Is Classy: Played With. During the script-reading at the Beverly Hilton, Mendez takes a glass of wine to fit in with the crowd, then immediately puts it on a tray after taking a sip. Later on, he begins shotgunning glasses of it during the script-reading to loosen up.