Argo is one of those historical films that are done properly: even knowing how the story is going to end, the story is told so well that the viewer is on the edge of his seat, wondering if our hero will succeed, if his charges will survive, is it all going to work out?! (I felt the same way about Apollo 13.)
The movie is set during the early days of the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-81. As in real history, an Iranian mob invaded and overran the US embassy Tehran in November 1979, taking 52 American diplomats hostage, and holding them for 444 days. Six of the embassy employees managed to escape in the first minutes of the invasion, and made their way to the protection of the Canadian embassy, where they hid for several months.
Eventually, life was getting uncomfortable for the Canadians, and the cover of the six Americans living with them was getting thin. The US State Department determined it was time to get the Americans out, and came up with a series of unworkable plans to do so, eventually, turning to the CIA for help with the exfiltration. CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an expert in exfiltrations, becomes the point man in the effort, and develops a scheme whereby the Americans in Iran will be covered as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a new film.
Now all he has to do is set up a credible background to make the story believable, travel to Iran, train six diplomats and office workers how to be a believable film crew, and get them out of the country before their presence and identities are discovered by raving lunatics. Easy.
Helping Tony in his machinations are real-life Academy Award- and Saturn Award-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman)—making the audience wonder what kind of prosthetics will be used to get the victims out—and fictional film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). The three of them are the most realized characters in the film. I felt most of the rest of the characters were very two-, and in some cases even one-, dimensional. But that doesn’t detract from the film as a whole.
Argo, from the title, is the name of the fictitious script our film non-producing heroes discover; in the real history, it was Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. Tony travels by himself to Iran; in the real history, he had a partner. In other words, this movie is so close to being documentary it’s not worth noting the differences. Oh, sure, there’s a chase scene, and some fictionalized tension, but you could read it as history and be just fine.
So this is emphatically not a science fiction movie. But the science fictional script at the heart of the action is treated respectfully, and the set decorators were very liberal in spreading science fictional tropes through the movie (Star Trek figurines, Star Wars posters, original Battlestar Galactica cylons on set, and more). And you have to wonder at the ease of mocking up a film production company, which won’t produce a movie, but will fool a gang of raving lunatics.
Having lived through that era, and seeing the same frightening xenophobia darkening the world today, this is a movie to remind us that good can triumph, that the US government is evil by design, and sf can play an important role in the affairs of people.