Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is an exfil expert. When people are unexpectedly caught in bad or scary situations, he gets them out. At the start of Argo, he’s working for the CIA in 1979, when one of these situations erupts in Tehran, when students storm the American embassy and take 50 hostages, six Americans escape, sneaking out a back door and across a few streets to go hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Their decision to leave the building is gutsy and lucky. Their situation at the ambassador’s home is bad and scary.
As days drag on and Shiite fighters come ever closer to discovering the six Americans’ whereabouts, the State Department and the CIA set to formulating their ex-filtration. When they call in their expert, he observes that their initial ideas—to disguise the six as reporters or English teachers or have them ride out on bicycles for 300 miles in winter—are feeble at best. And so he comes up with his own, namely, to pass off the “houseguests,” as the CIA calls them, as members of a movie crew, in Iran to scout locations for Argo, an upcoming science fiction adventure along the lines of Star Wars. As Tony outlines the scheme, his CIA colleagues, including Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), appear appropriately skeptical. They “have to be Canadian,” the team agrees at last, because the Iranians will be less likely to detain them at the airport that way, maybe, assuming they can somehow make their way to the airport.
To make the covers plausible, Tony puts together a movie, with help from a friend in the business, Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and a producer, Lester (Alan Arkin), whom John describes as someone who’s able to lie through his teeth and also “can be trusted.” As the three of them spend some time in office and at poolside tables, you get an idea of how Affleck, as a director, might have conjured and invited Argo‘s frankly brilliant chemistry. If ever a team might be said to roll, it’s this one, embodying a mix of cynicism, wisdom, and gentle good humor, they sort out the impossible task before them.
While these exchanges serve as prelude for the tensions to follow, as Tony lands in Tehran and trains up the houseguests to play their parts, they also set a framework for those tensions, as the film compares the ruses run by governments and movie studios. Ends might seem different and lives might be at stake in very different ways, but the means of deception are remarkably alike, whether constructed by screenwriters and producers and actors or by secret agents wearing pocket protectors and State Department administrators. The connection is especially vivid when the film sets in parallel a scene where John and Lester bluff a Hollywood pro into financing their project and Tony sits with the houseguests, drilling them on their fake identities and convincing them they might convince anyone else of them. In each scene, the camera cuts between faces, between the leaders who are liars and their listeners, unconvinced but wanting to believe, fooled and quite aware of being fooled.
It’s a good trick to contemplate, this relationship between audience and performer, in particular in a media environment where truths and fictions perpetually slide and bang into each other on screens. Argo turns repeatedly to shots of TV or other screens. The Iranian villains sort through photos of embassy personnel, the CIA guys are haunted by Ted Kopple and Jessica Savitch always on TVs at headquarters, and Tony comes up with his brilliant idea when he’s watching one of the Planet of the Apes movies (for which John won his makeup Oscar). He peers at the screen, his young son on the other end of the phone, so they can spend some bonding time together, as audience members. But Tony floats off into the story he’s watching—or more precisely, the story he’s telling himself, looking into Roddy McDowell’s made-up face, convincing himself that as he or his little boy can be convinced, so someone else might be convinced of a fabrication so very far-fetched.
Just so, when Tony convinces his trainees in Tehran that they need to go into a marketplace in order to leave a visible trail of location-scouting, it’s a preposterous notion and also a good exercise. Making their way through traffic, a fiercely anti-US street demonstration, checkpoints and crowds in the market per se, the houseguests look so anxious you can’t imagine their audience will be persuaded. And then one of them, Kathy (Kerry Bishé), begins taking pictures with her cheap little camera, pretending to care what she’s looking at or how she’s framing. When a vendor is roused to protest, angry that this tourist is so arrogant as to think she needn’t have permission to shoot his shop, she’s afraid, as are her colleagues. Their fear is in itself convincing, of another sort of reality and fiction collapsed onto one another, that they’re a Western film crew, privileged and ignorant.
As they retreat, the houseguests look at each other, fearful and relieved. It’s not necessarily a moment when Tony’s promises have been fulfilled—they escaped at least partly by accident—but it’s a moment they can use to tell themselves that. Just so, when Tony hears bad news about the mission from back at Langley, he can tell himself that his story is more righteous and more convincing than the one Jack tells. And so the film moves on, with added anxiety and added editing between Los Angeles and the CIA and the airport in Tehran, all the potentially missed connections tumbling over and past one another until a connection is made. And so you see: performance is skill and preparation and chance, whether truth or fiction.