The reality of strained relations with the Middle East is not new, though we are rarely given a glimpse into its inside story. I wasn’t alive for the Iranian hostage crisis that lasted from 1979-1981, and it was something glossed over (if mentioned at all) in history classes. But Ben Affleck’s upcoming film—in which he stars and directs—is bring this old story back to life again. Set in chilling days of political unrest that parallel our current state of affairs, Argo is a gritty, edge-of-your-seat, true story.
When CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatches a plan that is the “best bad idea” the combined intelligence agencies can muster, a Hollywood farce becomes a covert operation. In order to spirit away hidden survivors before they become hostages, Mendez sets up shop with a past his prime director (Alan Arkin) and a rogue special effects artist (John Goodman). Thus, Argo’s cryptic name comes from this film within a film.
As the movie begins, we are given a brief history lesson which paints an unsettling picture of Iran and U.S. foreign relations on the eve of the 1980s. What follows is a heart-wrenching account of protestors surging over the gates of the U.S. embassy as foreign workers look on helplessly. I couldn’t help but shiver as I thought of what those in Libya must have witnessed just weeks ago. The documentary-esque filming ends when we follow six U.S. citizens who escape through a side door. Now begins their sojourn as refugees in a hostile country. It is their story that weaves into Mendez’s own and thrusts viewers back and forth between daily life in the U.S. and Iran.
Tensions inevitably mount, but are thankfully defused by the irreverent Hollywood treatment Argo gets. But even in lighthearted moments, the pain of the hostages and escapees is never quite salved. This film hardly gives you time to breathe from the moment the vintage studio credits roll. Argo is also heavily laden with violence and strong language. These elements are not gratuitous, but essential to the impact of moments exposing the helplessness and horror experienced by those living through the event.
Yet even in its darkest moments, the film’s perfect ensemble cast shines through. Affleck proves his directorial skills through powerful visual storytelling and understated characterization. And artistic choices—such as the noticeable lack of subtitles to make the audience feel as helpless as the escapees—were subtle, but effective.
In today’s international climate, a dramatic film dredging up a painful past is certainly a risk. It’s possible that the filmmakers hoped to inspire viewers with the clear themes of allied nations in cooperation and the heroism of integrity. At the least, Argo makes it clear: Even while mired in governmental red tape, one person can have an effect on others. The timing of Argo’s release isn’t accidental, but a welcome distraction that works as a reminder that there is always hope, and good stories deserve to be told.
Christie Hudon is a freelance writer and editor. She also teaches creative writing to middle school students. You can view her blog Quillbook at wordpress.com.