It’s a story so old it was told back when chariots of iron were the latest military technology. A stranger, usually a traveler, is in town. He is invited to stay by a person who takes the duties of hospitality very seriously. The townspeople suspect the stranger is a spy, an enemy. They demand his host turn him over to the mob.
There is no doubt the host has put himself in danger. In the old stories, the women of the family are used as bargaining chips. In Judges 19, a concubine is sent out to be raped and then murdered by the crowd. In Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the daughters of the house are offered to the crowd, but the offer is turned down. These episodes are often given as examples of how poorly women were treated in the old stories, and I won’t argue that they weren’t, but I think they were also meant to represent the utter sacredness of hospitality, the duty to protect the stranger, no matter what.
In the movie Argo, the situation is a little different. The kindly host is also a stranger in the land. No one offers a woman to the angry mob, although the host’s housekeeper is in danger if she is found to have known about the strangers’ presence and not told on them. The main focus of Argo is not on the host, his duties and his peril, although that is a strong element, but on the efforts of the strangers’ homeland to get them out of danger. Yet while watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking that it was a Biblical story set in a Biblical land, because the twin impulses, to bond with others for our own protection and to defend against them for our own protection, go back that long and even longer.
Argo is set in Iran in 1979-1980, starting with the storming of the US Embassy on November 4. Six employees of the US Consulate are able to escape and eventually make their way to the Canadian Embassy, where they are sheltered in the Canadian ambassador’s home. Given the situation in Iran at the time, the ambassador is putting himself and his wife at risk. Everyone in the house is in danger, and the CIA is called on to come up with a plan to get the six Americans home. The State Department, the CIA and the Canadians agree that giving the six escapees fake identities as Canadians and flying them out on a commercial jet is the best way to extract them, although the idea of giving them bicycles and maps is floated briefly. After rejecting what at first seemed like more plausible plans that had serious flaws, CIA agent Tony Mendez comes up with the idea of staging a fake movie and giving the escapees identities as members of a Canadian film crew.
The movie cuts from scenes of the hostages being taken and their treatment in Iran, to scenes of the CIA and State Department meeting and planning, to scenes in Hollywood with a deft touch. The horror of the situation in Iran is countered with humorous moments in Hollywood often enough to give the audience a break but not lose the overall suspenseful tone of the movie.
The cinematography was tweaked to give the movie a period feel. Not just the costumes and hairstyles, but the whole look of the film was just right for the time. That’s an amazing attention to detail, and it works.
All of the acting was excellent. If you stick around long enough for the credits, you get to see pictures of the actors in character next to passport pictures of the real people they are portraying. It’s astonishing how close the resemblance is.
And there is a resolution at the end of one worrisome point about one of the Iranian characters. I don’t know if it was true to life, but it was an important detail to me.
The only small flaw I can find, and it’s an ongoing complaint of mine, is the number of, let’s not call them “cliches”, but Hollywood conventions that make their way into the script. While Argo is based on a true story, it doesn’t strictly tell the true story. Wired has recently reprinted their 2007 article, which I would recommend reading. I don’t fault Argo for being a fictionalized account of true events. I suspect most viewers, familiar with Hollywood storytelling conventions, can figure out which parts are likely real and which are add-ons. I just think of the old advice given to me in my girlhood years about jewelry: look at what you have on and subtract one piece. I think filmmakers would be do well to adapt that advice to their storytelling conventions: look at how many you have added to the script and subtract one. Some days I have a suspicion that they already do just that and still go overboard. I think the ending of the movie would actually have been stronger if there had been one or two fewer instances of split-second timing.
But then, as long as this story has been told, it has been told with the storytelling conventions of the day. The tokens sent to allies to summon them to avenge a great wrong, as in Judges 19 and as in the story of Troy. The helpless visitors turn out to be gods, as in the story of Baucis and Philomen or angels as in Genesis 19. In our day, there has to be a car chase. Maybe it wouldn’t be a story without it.
It’s a story that will always be told, because like all social species, we need our own kind, and we fear our own kind, but in addition, as humans, we feel the sacred duty of hospitality. It’s a story that will always be told, and Argo tells it particularly well.