Argo (2012 film)

Last updated

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ben Affleck
Screenplay by Chris Terrio
Based on
Produced by
Cinematography Rodrigo Prieto
Edited by William Goldenberg
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • August 31, 2012 (2012-08-31)(Telluride)
  • October 12, 2012 (2012-10-12)(United States)
Running time
120 minutes [1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$44.5 million [2]
Box office$232.3 million [2]

Argo is a 2012 American historical drama thriller film directed by Ben Affleck. Screenwriter Chris Terrio adapted the screenplay from the 1999 book by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency operative Tony Mendez, The Master of Disguise, and the 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman, "The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran". [3] The film deals with the "Canadian Caper", [3] in which Mendez led the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, Iran, under the guise of filming a science fiction film during the 1979–1981 Iran hostage crisis. [4]


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 was produced by Grant Heslov, Affleck and George Clooney.

Argo was praised for the acting (particularly Arkin and Goodman's), Affleck's direction, Terrio's screenplay, the editing, and Desplat's score, though the lack of historical accuracy (particularly in who was involved in the operation) was criticized. The film received seven nominations at the 85th Academy Awards and won three, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. The film also earned five Golden Globe Award nominations: it won Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture for Alan Arkin. It won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 19th Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Arkin was nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role. It also won Best Film, Best Editing and Best Director at the 66th British Academy Film Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Screenplay, and 37th Hochi Film Award for Best International Picture.

Despite its praise, Argo has been criticized for minimizing the role of the Canadian embassy in the rescue, for falsely showing that the Americans were turned away by the British and New Zealand embassies, and for exaggerating the danger the group faced during events preceding their escape from the country.


On November 4, 1979, Iranian Islamists 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, for cancer treatment. Sixty-six 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 a 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 the cover story credibility. Meanwhile, the escapees grow restless. The revolutionaries reassemble embassy photographs shredded before the takeover and 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 harassed by a hostile shopkeeper, but their Iranian culture contact hustles them away from the hostile crowd.

Mendez is told the operation has been cancelled in favor of 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 rebook their cancelled tickets on a Swissair flight. Tensions rise at the airport, where the escapees' new ticket reservations are only 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. They board the plane, which takes off just as the Revolutionary Guards at the airport are alerted to 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 afterward. The award is restored to him after the Canadian Caper is declassified in 1997.

As the credits roll, President Jimmy Carter is heard commenting on the operation.


Actor, producer, and director Ben Affleck. Ben Affleck by Gage Skidmore 3.jpg
Actor, producer, and director Ben Affleck.


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 . [3]

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. [5] The following June, Alan Arkin was the first person cast in the film. [6] After the rest of the roles were cast, filming began in Los Angeles [7] in August 2011. Additional filming took place in McLean, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Istanbul. [8] 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. [9]

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. [10] For its part, Warner Bros. used its 1972–1984 production logo 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). [11]

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. [3] [12]

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. [13]

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, [14] [15] as it was in a number of American entertainment productions (such as the well-established case of the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty [16] ).


Argo (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Film score by
ReleasedOctober 9, 2012
Genre Film score
Label WaterTower Music
Producer Alexandre Desplat
Track listing

All tracks are written by Alexandre Desplat, except where noted.

2."A Spy in Tehran"4:18
3."Scent of Death"3:25
4."The Mission"2:07
5."Hotel Messages"2:03
6."Held Up By Guards"5:31
7."The Business Card"2:55
8."Breaking Through the Gates"3:50
9."Tony Grills the Six"3:30
10."The Six Are Missing"3:21
12."Drive to the Airport"3:45
13."Missing Home"3:00
14."Istanbul (The Blue Mosque)"2:18
16."Cleared Iranian Airspace"6:01
17."Hace Tuto Guagua" (Traditional & Familion)3:39
Total length:58:37

Release and reception

First Lady Michelle Obama announces the winner of Academy Award for Best Picture, Argo, live from the Diplomatic Room of the White House, February 24, 2013. First Lady Michelle Obama announces the Best Picture Oscar to Argo.jpg
First Lady Michelle Obama announces the winner of Academy Award for Best Picture, Argo, live from the Diplomatic Room of the White House, February 24, 2013.

Critical response

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 358 reviews, with an average rating of 8.40/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Tense, exciting and often darkly comic, Argo recreates a historical event with vivid attention to detail and finely wrought characters." [17] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 86 out of 100, based on 45 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". [18] CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a rare "A+" grade. [19]

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." [20] 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." [21]

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? [22]

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. [22] He also correctly predicted that it would win the Academy Award for Best Picture, following its presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival. [23]

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." [24]

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. [24]

Reaction by Iranians

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. [25] 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. [26] 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. [27] 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." [28] The film also ignores the importance of the date of the Embassy takeover. Mark Bowen, in his book on the subject, noted that November 4 was recognized as National Student's Day to acknowledge the student protesters killed by the Shah's police the year before. He also pointed out that this was the same date that the Ayatollah Khomeini was exiled 15 years before. [29]

The high DVD sales suggests a form of silent protest against the government's ongoing hostility to relations with America. [30]

Top ten lists

Professional reviewers ranked the film with other releases for 2012, as follows:

1st Christy Lemire Associated Press
Joe Neumaier and Elizabeth Weitzman New York Daily News
Roger Ebert Chicago Sun-Times
2ndLisa Kennedy Denver Post
Lou Lumenick New York Post
Richard Roeper
4thBetsy Sharkey Los Angeles Times
Kyle Smith New York Post
5th Lisa Schwarzbaum Entertainment Weekly
Peter Travers Rolling Stone
Stephen Holden The New York Times
6thMary Pols Time
Mick LaSalle San Francisco Chronicle
7thAnn Hornaday The Washington Post
Anne Thompson Indiewire
Ty Burr The Boston Globe
8th Owen Gleiberman Entertainment Weekly
9th Peter Bradshaw The Guardian
Top 10
(ranked alphabetically)
Bob Mondello NPR
Calvin Wilson St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Claudia Puig USA Today
David Denby The New Yorker
Joe Morgenstern The Wall Street Journal
Joe Williams St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Kenneth Turan Los Angeles Times

Box office

Argo earned $136 million in the United States, and $96.3 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $232.3 million. [2]

The film debuted in second place with $19.5 million, then made $16.4 million in its sophomore weekend. In its third weekend the film made $12.1 million, finishing in first place. [31]

Home media

The film was released in North America on February 19, 2013 on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. [32]


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 [33] and Quentin Tarantino, whose film Django Unchained was nominated in several categories. [34]

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!" [35]

Historical inaccuracies

Canadian versus CIA roles

After the film was previewed at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, [36] 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. [37] 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." [38] 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. [39] 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." [40] The Toronto Star wrote, "Even that hardly does Canada justice." [41]

People welcoming the six American diplomats back to the United States and expressing thanks to Canada, 1980 ThanksCanada.JPG
People welcoming the six American diplomats back to the United States and expressing thanks to Canada, 1980

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. [42]

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." [40] In the film, Taylor is shown as having been ordered to close down the Canadian embassy. This did not happen, and the Canadians never considered abandoning the six Americans who had taken refuge under their protection. [40]

Affleck asserted:

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." [38]

After his death, The Washington Post described Taylor as the "main hero" of the Iran hostage escape, quoting former president Jimmy Carter in doing so. In 1981, Taylor was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Ronald Reagan. [43] Nonetheless, the significance of his role was downplayed in the film. [44]

British and New Zealand roles

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. In fact both embassies, together with the Canadians, helped the Americans. The British had 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 diplomats organized a place for the refugees to hide if they needed to change their location, [45] and drove the Americans to the airport when they made their escape from Tehran. [46] British diplomats also assisted other American hostages beyond the escaped group of six. [47] 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." [48]

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." [48]

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." [48] 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.[ citation needed ]

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." [48] 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. [49] [50]

Imminent danger to the group

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. [38] [40] [51] Taylor's wife bought three sets of plane tickets from three different airlines ahead of time, without any issues. [38] [40]

Other inaccuracies

The film contains other historical inaccuracies:

See also

Related Research Articles

Iran hostage crisis 1979–1981 diplomatic standoff between the United States and Iran

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Kenneth D. Taylor Canadian diplomat

Kenneth Douglas Taylor, was a Canadian diplomat, educator and businessman, best known for his role in the 1979 covert operation called the "Canadian Caper" when he was the Canadian ambassador to Iran. With the cooperation of the American Central Intelligence Agency, Taylor helped six Americans escape from Iran during the Iran hostage crisis by procuring Canadian passports for the Americans to deceive the Iranian Revolutionary guard by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations. Before the escape, the six Americans spent several weeks hiding in the homes of Taylor and another Canadian diplomat, John Sheardown.

Tony Mendez American CIA technical operations officer and writer

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Chris Terrio is an American screenwriter and film director. He is best known for writing the screenplay for the 2012 film Argo, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Terrio also won the Writers Guild Award for Best Adapted Screenplay of 2012 and was nominated for Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay, a BAFTA, and the 2013 Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

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