The film, starring Affleck as Mendez, and Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman in supporting roles, was released in the United States on October 12, 2012. It film was produced by Grant Heslov, Affleck and George Clooney.
On November 4, 1979, Iranian activists storm the United States embassy in Tehran in retaliation for President Jimmy Carter giving the Shah asylum in the U.S. during the Iranian Revolution. 60 of the embassy staff are taken as hostages, but six avoid capture and are sheltered in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. With the escapees' situation kept secret, the U.S. State Department begins to explore options for exfiltrating them from Iran. Tony Mendez, a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency exfiltration specialist, is brought in for consultation. He criticizes the proposals, but is at a loss when asked for an alternative. While on the phone with his son, he is inspired by watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes and begins plans for creating a cover story for the escapees: that they are Canadian filmmakers who are in Iran scouting exotic locations for a science-fiction film.
Mendez contacts John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist who had previously worked for the CIA. Chambers puts Mendez in touch with film producer Lester Siegel. Together, they set up a phony film production company, publicize their plans, and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a "science fantasy adventure" in the style of Star Wars, to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow restless. The revolutionaries reassemble embassy photographs shredded before the takeover and finally realize that some personnel are unaccounted for.
Posing as a producer for Argo, Mendez enters Iran under the alias Kevin Harkins and meets with the six escapees. He provides them with Canadian passports and fake identities. Although afraid to trust Mendez's scheme, they reluctantly go along, knowing that he is risking his own life too. A scouting visit to the bazaar to maintain their cover story takes a bad turn when they are harassed by a hostile shopkeeper, but their Iranian culture contact hustles them away from the hostile crowd.
Mendez is told that the operation has been cancelled to avoid conflicting with a planned military rescue of the hostages. He pushes ahead anyway, forcing his boss Jack O'Donnell to hastily re-obtain authorization for the mission and confirm their tickets on a Swissair flight. Tensions rise at the airport, where the escapees' ticket reservations are confirmed at the last minute, and the head guard's call to the fake production company in Hollywood is answered only at the last second. The group boards the airliner, which takes off just as the Revolutionary Guards at the airport are informed of the ruse and try to stop them.
To protect the hostages remaining in Tehran from retaliation, all U.S. involvement in the rescue is suppressed and full credit is given to the Canadian government and its ambassador (who shuts down the embassy and leaves Iran with his wife as the operation is underway). The ambassador's Iranian housekeeper, who had known about the Americans and lied to the revolutionaries to protect them, escapes to Iraq. Mendez is awarded the Intelligence Star, but due to the mission's classified nature, he receives the medal in secret and has to return it afterwards. The award is restored to him after the Canadian Caper is declassified in 1997.
Argo is based on the "Canadian Caper" that took place during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980. Chris Terrio wrote the screenplay based on Joshuah Bearman's 2007 article "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran," which was published in Wired.
In 2007, the producers George Clooney, Grant Heslov and David Klawans set up a project based on the article. Affleck's participation was announced in February 2011. The following June, Alan Arkin was the first person cast in the film. After the rest of the roles were cast, filming began in Los Angeles in August 2011. Additional filming took place in McLean, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Istanbul. The scene in which Mendez drives up to and walks into the CIA headquarters lobby was filmed with permission at the CIA's original headquarters building in Virginia; all other scenes set at the CIA were filmed in the basement of the Los Angeles Times Building.
As a historical piece, the film made use of archival news footage from ABC, CBS and NBC; and included popular songs from the era, such as "Little T&A" by The Rolling Stones (an anachronism, as it was not released until the following year), "Sultans of Swing" by Dire Straits, "Dance the Night Away" by Van Halen and "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin. For its part, Warner Bros. used its 1972–1984 title featuring the "Big W" logo designed by Saul Bass for Warner Communications to open the film and painted on its studio lot's famed water tower the logo of The Burbank Studios (the facility's name during the 1970s and 1980s when Warner shared it with Columbia Pictures).
The screenplay used by the CIA to create their cover story was an adaptation of Roger Zelazny's 1967 novel Lord of Light. Producer Barry Geller had spearheaded an earlier attempt to produce the film using the original title. After that production attempt failed, the screenplay was renamed Argo and used by the CIA.
According to Tony Mendez, Studio Six—the phony Hollywood production office he helped create at the core of the CIA plan—proved so convincing that even weeks after the rescue was complete and the office had folded, 26 scripts were delivered to its address, including one from Steven Spielberg.
In April 2016, research by VICE, based on documents received under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that the CIA was involved in the production of the 2012 Argo, as it was in a number of American entertainment productions (such as the well-established case of the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty).Track listing
All tracks written by Alexandre Desplat, except where noted.
Argo was acclaimed by critics, praising Ben Affleck's direction, the cast (especially Arkin and Goodman), the script and the editing. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 96%, based on 313 reviews, with an average rating of 8.4/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Tense, exciting and often darkly comic, Argo recreates a historical event with vivid attention to detail and finely wrought characters." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 86 out of 100, based on 45 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a rare "A+" grade.
Naming Argo one of the best 11 films of 2012, critic Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote: "Ben Affleck's seamless direction catapults him to the forefront of Hollywood filmmakers turning out thoughtful entertainment." The Washington Times said it felt "like a movie from an earlier era — less frenetic, less showy, more focused on narrative than sensation," but that the script included "too many characters that he doesn’t quite develop."
Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert said,
The craft in this film is rare. It is so easy to manufacture a thriller from chases and gunfire, and so very hard to fine-tune it out of exquisite timing and a plot that's so clear to us we wonder why it isn't obvious to the Iranians. After all, who in their right mind would believe a space opera was being filmed in Iran during the hostage crisis?
Ebert gave the film 4/4 stars, calling it "spellbinding" and "surprisingly funny," and chose it as the best film of the year, the last film he would choose for this honor before his death in 2013.
Literary critic Stanley Fish says that the film is a standard caper film in which "some improbable task has to be pulled off by a combination of ingenuity, training, deception and luck." He goes on to describe the film's structure: "(1) the presentation of the scheme to reluctant and unimaginative superiors, (2) the transformation of a ragtag bunch of ne'er-do-wells and wackos into a coherent, coordinated unit and (3) the carrying out of the task."
Although he thinks the film is good at building and sustaining suspense, he concludes,
This is one of those movies that depend on your not thinking much about it; for as soon as you reflect on what's happening rather than being swept up in the narrative flow, there doesn't seem much to it aside from the skill with which suspense is maintained despite the fact that you know in advance how it's going to turn out. ... Once the deed is successfully done, there's really nothing much to say, and anything that is said seems contrived. That is the virtue of an entertainment like this; it doesn't linger in the memory and provoke afterthoughts.
Abolhassan Banisadr, foreign minister and then president during the incident, argued that the movie does not take into account the fact that most of the cabinet members advocated freeing all the American personnel quickly. Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian writer and radio figure of Iranian descent, thought the film had a "deeply troubling portrayal of the Iranian people." Ghomeshi asserted "among all the rave reviews, virtually no one in the mainstream media has called out [the] unbalanced depiction of an entire ethnic national group, and the broader implications of the portrait." He also suggested that the timing of the film was poor, as American and Iranian political relations were at a low point. University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole had a similar assessment, writing that the film's narrative fails to provide adequate historical context for the events it portrays, and such errors of omission lead all of the Iranian characters in the film to be depicted as ethnic stereotypes. A November 3, 2012 article in the Los Angeles Times claimed that the film had received very little attention in Tehran, though Masoumeh Ebtekar, who was the spokesperson of the students who took the hostages and called only "Tehran Mary" in the film's credits, said that the film did not show "the real reasons behind the event."
Bootleg DVDs have become popular and are estimated at "several hundreds of thousands" of copies. Interpretations of the film's popularity in Iran have varied, ranging from the fact that the movie portrays the excesses of the revolution and the hostage crisis, which had been long glorified in Iran, to regular Iranians viewing it as a somber reminder of what caused the poor relations with America and the ensuing cost to Iran, decades after the embassy takeover. The high DVD sales are suggested as a form of silent protest against the government's ongoing hostility to relations with America.
Professional reviewers ranked the film with other releases for 2012, as follows:
The film earned $136,024,128 in North America, and $96,300,000 in other countries, for a worldwide total of $232,324,128.
The film was released in North America on February 19, 2013 on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Affleck was not nominated for Best Director, and following the announcement of the nominations, Bradley Cooper, who was nominated for his leading performance in Silver Linings Playbook, declared: "Ben Affleck got robbed." This opinion was shared by the ceremony's host Seth MacFarlane and Quentin Tarantino, whose film Django Unchained was nominated in several categories.
Entertainment Weekly wrote about this controversy:
Standing in the Golden Globe pressroom with his directing trophy, Affleck acknowledged that it was frustrating not to get an Oscar nod when many felt he deserved one. But he's keeping a sense of humor. "I mean, I also didn't get the acting nomination," he pointed out. "And no one's saying I got snubbed there!"
After the film was previewed at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, many critics said that it unfairly glorified the CIA's role and minimized the Canadian government's role (particularly that of Ambassador Taylor) in the extraction operation. Maclean's asserted that "the movie rewrites history at Canada's expense, making Hollywood and the CIA the saga's heroic saviours while Taylor is demoted to a kindly concierge." The postscript text said that the CIA let Taylor take the credit for political purposes, which some critics thought implied that he did not deserve the accolades he received. In response to this criticism, Affleck changed the postscript text to read: "The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments." The Toronto Star wrote, "Even that hardly does Canada justice."
In a CNN interview, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter addressed the controversy:
90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA. And with that exception, the movie is very good. But Ben Affleck's character in the film was... only in Tehran a day and a half. And the main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.
Taylor noted, "In reality, Canada was responsible for the six and the CIA was a junior partner. But I realize this is a movie and you have to keep the audience on the edge of their seats." In the film, Taylor is shown threatening to close the Canadian embassy. This did not happen, and the Canadians never considered abandoning the six Americans who had taken refuge under their protection.
Because we say it's based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we're allowed to take some dramatic license. There's a spirit of truth .... the kinds of things that are really important to be true are—for example, the relationship between the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. stood up collectively as a nation and said, "We like you, we appreciate you, we respect you, and we're in your debt."... There were folks who didn't want to stick their necks out and the Canadians did. They said, "We'll risk our diplomatic standing, our lives, by harbouring six Americans because it's the right thing to do." Because of that, their lives were saved."
Upon its release in October 2012, the film was criticized for its suggestion that British and New Zealand embassies had turned away the American refugees in Tehran. Neither the British nor the New Zealand embassies had turned the refugees away. Both embassies, along with the Canadians, helped them. The British took immense risks, having initially hosted the American refugees. However, the location was deemed unsafe as the British embassy itself had been targeted and surrounded by mobs and all involved officials from the various nations believed the Canadian ambassador's residence to be a safer location. New Zealand diplomatic ambassadors also took huge risks: organizing a place for the refugees to hide if they needed to change their location, and driving the Americans to the airport when they made their escape from Tehran. British diplomats also assisted other American hostages beyond the escaped group of six. Bob Anders, the U.S. consular agent played in the film by Tate Donovan, said, "They put their lives on the line for us. We were all at risk. I hope no one in Britain will be offended by what's said in the film. The British were good to us and we're forever grateful."
Sir John Graham, the then-British ambassador to Iran, said,
My immediate reaction on hearing about this was one of outrage. I have since simmered down, but am still very distressed that the film-makers should have got it so wrong. My concern is that the inaccurate account should not enter the mythology of the events in Tehran in November 1979."
The then-British chargé d'affaires in Tehran said that, had the Americans been discovered in the British embassy, "I can assure you we'd all have been for the high jump." Martin Williams, secretary to Sir John Graham in Iran at the time, was the one who found the Americans, after searching for them in his own British car (the only Austin Maxi in Iran) and first sheltered them in his own house. The sequence in the film when a housekeeper confronts a truckload of Iranian revolutionary guards at the Canadian ambassador's home bears a striking resemblance to Williams' story. He has told how a brave guard, Iskander Khan, confronted heavily armed revolutionary guards and convinced them that no-one was in when they tried to search Williams' house during a blackout. Williams said, "They went away. We and the Americans had a very lucky escape." The fugitives later moved to the residence of the Canadian ambassador.
Affleck is quoted as saying to The Sunday Telegraph: "I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair. But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone."
On March 12, 2013, the New Zealand House of Representatives censured Affleck by unanimously agreeing to the following motion, initiated by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters:
... this House acknowledge[s] with gratitude the efforts of former New Zealand diplomats Chris Beeby and Richard Sewell in assisting American hostages in Tehran during the hostage crisis in 1979, and express[es] its regret that the director of the movie Argo saw fit to mislead the world about what actually happened during that crisis when, in reality, our courageous diplomats’ inspirational actions were of significant help to the American hostages and deserve the factual and historical record to be corrected.
In the film, the diplomats face suspicious glances from Iranians whenever they go out in public, and appear close to being caught at many steps along the way to their freedom. In reality, the diplomats never appeared to be in imminent danger. Rather than the team having to withstand scrutiny while buying tickets, Taylor's wife bought three sets of plane tickets from three different airlines ahead of time, without any issues.The film depicts a dramatic last-minute cancellation of the mission by the Carter administration and Mendez declaring he will proceed with the mission. Carter delayed authorization by only 30 minutes, and that was before Mendez had left Europe for Iran.
The film portrays a tense situation when the crew tries to board the plane, and their identities are nearly discovered. No such confrontation with security officials took place at the departure gate.
The film has a dramatic chase sequence as the plane takes off; this did not occur. As Mark Lijek described it, "Fortunately for us, there were very few Revolutionary Guards in the area. It is why we turned up for a flight at 5.30 in the morning; even they weren't zealous enough to be there that early. The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador's residence in Bern. It was that straightforward."
The film contains other historical inaccuracies:The screenplay has the escapees—Mark and Cora Lijek, Bob Anders, Lee Schatz, and Joe and Kathy Stafford—settling down to enforced cohabitation at the residence of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. In reality, after several nights, the group was split between the Taylor house and the home of another Canadian official, John Sheardown.
"It's not true we could never go outside. John Sheardown's house had an interior courtyard with a garden and we could walk there freely," Mark Lijek says.
Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, is not a real person. His name and some contribution are based on Robert Sidell's while his personality is based on Jack Warner's.
In the depiction of a frantic effort by CIA headquarters, in Langley, to get President Jimmy Carter to re-authorize the mission so that previously purchased airline tickets would still be valid, a CIA officer is portrayed as getting the White House telephone operator to connect him to Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan by impersonating a representative of the school attended by Jordan's children. In reality, Jordan was unmarried and had no children at the time.
The film depicts Mendez discovering the script with the title of Argo. In reality the script was titled Lord of Light, based on the book of the same name by Roger Zelazny. The CIA changed the title to Argo.
Comic book artist Jack Kirby did not do his storyboard work for the fabricated CIA film production. He created these when there was an attempt to produce Lord of Light a few years before the Iranian hostage situation.
The Hollywood Sign is shown dilapidated as it had been in the 1970s. The sign had been repaired in 1978, two years prior to the events described in the film.
The Swissair flight that took Mendez and the hostage group out of Tehran is shown operated with a Boeing 747-300, a type which entered service in 1983, and is painted in a livery that Swissair introduced in 1980. In real life, the group departed Iran on a Swissair Douglas DC-8.