"Argo" is What Happens When Truth Is Stranger, but Less Dramatic, than Fiction

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
October 25th, 2012

"Argo" is What Happens When Truth Is Stranger, but Less Dramatic, than Fiction

-- When a film is based on a true story, it doesn't necessarily mean that everything in the movie is true. Movie directors often play fast and loose with the facts, adding dramatic details or romantic plot points to appeal to a wider audience. In "Argo," directed by and starring Ben Affleck, most of the story is true, though the ending is embellished quite a bit.

The film begins in the fall of 1979, when the Shah of Iran, sick and nearly on his deathbed, takes asylum in the United States. He has been replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini in a part of history known as the Islamic Revolution. Swept up in the revolution, a large group of Iranian students overtakes the U.S. embassy, where they take several dozen people hostage for more than a year. Six people manage to escape and find shelter in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who is played by the fantastic character actor Victor Garner in the film.

Affleck's drama, which is the subject of Oscar buzz, has stayed true to the facts. The Islamic Revolution did indeed happen under these circumstances, and protesting students did overtake the U.S. embassy. The film skirts over the hostage crisis at the embassy in favor of focusing on the six escapees, but it still stays true to the events leading up to that point.

Taylor took a big risk by secretly housing the six Americans, because the same fate suffered by the U.S. embassy could have easily befallen the Canadian embassy if the Iranians had found out. Luckily, he was able to keep it a secret from everyone else who works in the embassy except John Sheardown, who aided Taylor in getting the Americans passports and visas so they can leave the country peacefully once the U.S. government hatches a rescue plan. Affleck stays mostly true to this, though he leaves out Sheardown as a character in his movie. There is already a large ensemble cast in the film, so it is no surprise that Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio decided to leave him out for brevity.

Meanwhile, back in the western world, the U.S. and Canadian governments are trying to come up with a plan to get the six embassy employees out of the Canadian embassy. Unfortunately, they are having a hard time coming up with a feasible plan, because there is so much unrest in Iran, and the situation there changes almost daily, making it a very unstable place to launch a rescue mission. CIA expert Tony Mendez hatches what seems like a harebrained plot to pose as a Canadian film director who will claim that the six workers are location scouts of his who are looking for places to shoot his sci-fi film, "Argo."

At this point in the film, Affleck begins to take some liberties with the facts. Unbelievably, there really was a rescue plan hatched by the CIA to extract the six workers that involved a faked Hollywood film. This part is true and is portrayed in the film with a razor-sharp wit and more than a little disdain for the movie-making process. However, the script largely downplays Canadian involvement in the mission, to the point where it almost looks like the CIA is the real hero here. Taylor's involvement past being a glorified babysitter is not given much screen time, which angered many Canadians upon the film's debut in September 2012 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In real life, the mission went off without a hitch, and the six workers were quietly taken out of the Canadian embassy without any trouble or fanfare. Once they were back in the United States, the CIA did not claim any hand in the mission, because they were afraid of further retaliation against Americans still being held hostage in Iran. Instead, Canada got all of the credit for the mission, which was affectionately called "The Canadian Caper."

In the film, Affleck ramps up the drama with several nail-biting sequences before and during the rescue. There are chases through airports, computer files that almost don't get where they need to be, and even the age-old Hollywood trope of a suspicious airport employee who almost wrecks the entire mission with a single stare. These tropes work because they add to the drama of an already incredible story. However, they simply didn't happen, since by all accounts, the real mission went smoothly and without any trouble.

Affleck has tried to smooth over some ruffled feathers by adding a postscript to the film that praises Canadian involvement in the mission. For his part, Ambassador Taylor, who is still alive and has seen the film, says that he understands that "Argo" is a Hollywood film and not a documentary. Despite being entertainment, the film stays surprisingly close to the facts, but with a Hollywood ending.