Cast: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Brian Cranston, Alan Arkin, Philip Baker Hall, Clea DuVall
Written by: Chris Terrio
Directed by: Ben Affleck
This riveting, pulse-pounding race-against-time thriller is yet another one of those "based on a true story" deals that ignited more than enough controversy and cries of "foul" before it was even announced as one of TIFF's most-coveted galas. The back story holds a special place in the hearts of Canadians--we're not a country of many myths and tend to downplay our achievements in diplomacy, but as a nation "The Canadian Caper" is as sacred as the story of George Washington skipping a silver dollar along the Potomac. It even inspired one of the greatest SCTV parodies...
Those of us of a certain vintage (like this reviewer) might have been a bit too young to absorb all the facts (we were too busy waiting for "The Empire Strikes Back" to be released), but in long-ago/not-so-long-ago 1980, but from what we could glean from our parents' copy of Macleans went something like this: on November 4th, 1979, the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, was stormed and seized by Islamist militants, in protest over America's harbouring of their deposed Shah.
Six American diplomats--Robert Anders, Cora Amburn-Lijek, Mark Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz--managed to evade capture and execution. Anders contacted his friend John Sheardown, a Canadian immigration officer, who eventually brought them to the residence of Canadian Ambassador To Iran Ken Taylor, where they remained for 79 days. Taylor contacted the Canadian government for assistance. Fake Canadian passports and forged Iranian visas were created and issued to the six Americans, and CIA agent Tony Mendez, something of a master-of-disguise, provided the cover story of a Hollywood location scout. The six boarded a plane to Frankfurt, Germany on January 27, 1980. Everyone made it home safely.
Chris Terrio's screenplay is based largely on Joshuah Bearman's Wired article "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran", written within a decade after the records were declassified by the Clinton administration, and on Tony Mendez' own account "Master Of Disguise". Does it take liberties with the real-life tale?
The film hits the ground running with a mixture of archival news footage and restaged events that chronicle the turbulent series of events that eventually have the six Americans splitting out on the street outside the embassy into two panicked groups. Once holed up at the home of Ambassador Taylor (Garber), CIA consultant Mendez (Affleck) is brought in and entertains a series of increasingly bizarre rescue plots, everything from fugitive school teachers to dropping down bicycles for an ambitious border run. A chance late-night screening of "Battle For The Planet Of The Apes" gives him another idea, and he tracks down old friend and CIA cohort John Chambers (Goodman), known to most as the Oscar-winning makeup maestro behind "Star Trek", "The List Of Adrian Messenger", and the "Apes" saga.
Chambers suggests that for the fake-movie scam to work, it must be entirely believable, and for that, it's essential not only to convince the Iranians, but the entirety of Hollywood as well. Old-school producer Lester Siegel (Arkin, tearing into a role invented for the film) is game to get in and even stages a fake reading and arranges prominent trade ads and billboards for his upcoming faux-"Star Wars": "Argo" (in fact, an unfilmed adaptation of the Roger Zelazny sci-fi classic "Lord Of Light").
The film plays out more or less faithful to actual accounts, but Affleck and co. never hesitate to ramp up the melodrama whenever possible and add more complications that were necessarily present, chief among them, a lengthy inspection of the passports and visas by a suspicious airport guard (never happened), and a jeep pursuit along the tarmac by armed security as the fugitives' escape craft pulls away (definitely never happened)...
Still, the film is beautifully shot (Istanbul doubles as Iran), inventively staged (menace lurks around every corner), and masterfully edited (the climactic three-way cross-cutting is dizzying), servicing a wonderful, perfectly-cast ensemble and Affleck's most confident and muscular direction to date (casting himself as Mendez in a role that curiously underwritten and merely serviceable, might be the only misstep, but not to the film's detriment).
©Robert J. Lewis 2012