Courage and Politics: Portrayals of Humanity in Ben Affleck’s “Argo”

*Warning: The following is an analysis of the film Argo, NOT a review. Therefore, it contains many important spoilers.*

“ You can’t build cover stories around a movie that doesn’t exist….You need a script, you need a producer. You need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. Somebody respectable. With credits. Who you can trust with classified information. Who will produce a fake movie. For free.” 


Since the invention of the film industry, movies have been used to tell our history. The “Hollywoodizing” of the events in our past has become a way to remember it, to relearn lessons in the realm of popular entertainment. Often, films retelling historical events reflect a contemporary global climate, showing us that historical conflicts can repeat themselves (or perhaps were never resolved in the first place,) offering a new form of narrative for an old tale. 


Such is the case with Ben Affleck’s critically acclaimed film Argo, the recently declassified true story of a fake movie.

The Iranian hostage crisis remains a testament of both international cooperation and international frustration. A group of Iranian students, reflecting the frustration of the supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in November of 1979, furious over the admittance of the overthrown Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the United States. The people of Iran wanted the Shah returned and tried for his reign of abhorrent human rights violations. The U.S. was giving him medical treatment for his terminal cancer. Frustration rose in Tehran, frustration that was justified, but misplaced. The American Embassy was breached, the diplomats inside held hostage for 444 days. In the initial chaos, six American Embassy employeesescaped through the exit of the consulate. They sought refuge in the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador to Iran. Taylor’s home served as their hideout for nearly three months of uncertainty. Then one day, they returned home, a glimmer of good news that came while over fifty Americans remained hostages in Tehran. Canada got all the credit, our neighbors to the north risking much, including the severing of trust with Iran, forgoing their own neutrality to ensure the safe return of six American citizens. Though the banners waved across the country that read “Thank You, Canada,” in the year 1980 were more than justified, there was far more to the story that was part of an elaborate classified mission by the CIA. Canada’s help was invaluable, the work of their embassy and their Ambassador himself being huge pieces of the puzzle that got the six diplomats out of Iran. But there were other pieces to the huge puzzle, a puzzle that was immediately locked away in a CIA vault.Fearingretaliation against the remaining hostages in Tehran, the world was not allowed to know that the United States was involved. Canada kept our secret. They accepted sole credit with our thanks.  


The Canadian Caper. The Hollywood Option. Argo. Declassified by President Clinton in 1997.



Affleck’s film takes the necessary creative license to make this story fit the Hollywood tradition of elaborate retellings of history, but the core of the story is incredibly accurate, and reminds us that conflict between us and the Middle East is not a recent development. Though this is in part a story of conflict, it also a story of cooperation and shared humanity. Affleck does not portray the Iranian people as heartless villains, but as frustrated humans, people like us who believe with every fiber of their being that America has wronged them. It is true, by giving the exiled Shah refuge, we allowed him to escape execution for his crimes. At the same time, what were we supposed to do? The man was already dying. Affleck portrays the situation as it was: complicated, unstable, and without a clear right answer. If the U.S. returned the Shah as the students demanded, we would be negotiating with terrorists. If we attempted to save our diplomats, they would be killed. If the students killed them first, we would storm Tehran, a force to be reckoned with. It was a stalemate. No one could feasibly make a move. 




“Exfils are like abortions. You don’t want to need one, but when you do, you don’t do it yourself.” 

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez and Brian Cranston as Jack O’Donnell


In the film, the U.S. State Department debates whether or not to attempt rescue of the six immediately following the incident or to focus on the embassy hostages. “The whole world is watching the embassy. That makes them far safer than the six on the street.” CIA agent Tony Mendez proposes an exfiltration through the airport in Tehran, with he and the six escaped diplomats being members of a Canadian film crew looking for exotic locations for the upcoming sci-fi film Argo. Mendez establishes a fake studio in Hollywood with the help of make-up artist John Chambers and producer Robert Sidell. A press conference and scene reading are held to make it authentic. Storyboards are created. Canada issues passports for Mendez and all six diplomats. 

“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!”

John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers and Allan Arkin as producer Robert Sidell


Though creating a cover story around a fake movie seems far fetched, even described in the film as “the best bad idea we have, by far,” Affleck shows us the universal appeal of film and fantasy, how the most popular form of escapism lends itself to breaching cultural boundaries. Mendez and his fictitious Canadian film crew are detained during a tense navigation of Mehrabad airport. Joseph Stafford, a consulate employee who speaks Farsi, pulls out the crew’s fake story boards and begins elaborately explaining the plot of their film to the Revolutionary Guards, who become visibly excited over their story of a group of inter-space heroes overthrowing an alien king. Though the group’s identity is still verified, their fictitious Hollywood office receiving the one phone call they were set up to take, the fantasy story cover proves effective at breaching a cultural gap.The Iranian guards are given the story boards as a gift and excitedly examine them as the “Canadians” are allowed to board a plane to Zürich. Movies reach everyone. Our mutual enjoyment of fantasy is one of the greatest links that holds humanity together. Governments, religion, ideology, and politics all divide us. Movies unite us. 



“Of course I speak Farsi. I wish to make a movie in Iran!”


The inclusion of the Canadian ambassador’s Iranian housekeeper, Sahar,  further strengthens the humanity of the Iranian people as whole. Regardless of the country in question, the majority of people are not radical revolutionaries, but merely working class people whose goal in life is to live peacefully and find a means of supporting themselves. Sahar is questioned at the gate of the ambassador’s home, asked how long his guests have been staying with him, and told that those who stay silent are guilty in the eyes of God. Sahar unfalteringly states that the guests arrived two days prior, despite their presence in the house exceeding two months. The ambassador and his wife do not reveal the identity of their guests to Sahar. They do not take her into their confidence and become nervous when it becomes clear she has figured out who the guests are.But even thoughsheisnotshowntrust, Sahar is not a revolutionary, and it becomes clear that she sees the escaped Americans as innocent and she does not wish to see innocent people die. We forget about Sahar and the great personal risk there is to her in concealing the truth to her countrymen. To protect its own diplomats, the Canadian embassy is vacated the same day Mendez takes the Americans through the airport. They Americans rejoice as their flight attendant announces they have cleared Iranian airspace. Then we again see Sahar, her passport in hand, stamped at the border as she has been told, “You have been granted entry to the Republic of Iraq.” Sahar becomes one of the saddest casualties of this story. Her decision to keep silent saved the lives of many, but non of whom were from her country, and in fact her courage forces her to leave her home and forge a new life in a foreign place. She is perhaps the most courageous character in the film. People like Tony Mendez and Ken Taylor assuredly  risked theirlives to help, but they did so with the aid and backing of their governments, and though it certainly was not their goal to win awards, they both did. Sahar’s actions came with no recognition and at great personal loss. Hers is the greatest form of courage, and the core of true humanity. In the end, if this humble Iranian woman had not kept silent, the mission would have failed and failed badly, making her seemingly minor role as essential as the Canadian passports issued to the fleeing Americans. 



“Everyone in this house is a friend of Iran.” 


Intense moments of humanity are highlighted in other areas of the story. In the initial Embassy take over, the six who end up escaping had been in the process of issuing Visa applications to a room full of Iranian citizens. They realize that all of these Iranians will be killed as traitors when the embassy is breached. The six diplomats resolve to go out a back exit, but they issue a command “Iranian’s first” and usher all of the citizens out the door to safety before they escape themselves. Further in the story, CIA agent Tony Mendez receives orders that the rescue mission has been called off, orders that come the evening before he is scheduled to take the six through the airport. He spends the night conflicted between following orders and following through. He calls his supervisor Jack O’Donnell and states “Someone is responsible when things happen. I’m responsible forthesepeople. I’m taking them through.” Though fictitious, this incident paints Tony Mendez as a humanitarian, not a pawn of his government who blindly follows orders. 


Much like Mohsin Hamid’s controversial novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir Funny in Farsi, Ben Affleck’s Argo is a brilliant attempt to reflect shared humanity. Argo does not present an “us against them” mentality in portraying this story, rather shows us that all governments make mistakes and peaceful, innocent civilians should not be held responsible. It is easy to blame entire nations for the actions of their governments, which is exactly what the Iranian revolutionaries who stormed the American embassy (a minute percentage of the population reflecting the views of the new government) tried to do. As humans, Americans are guilty of this too. Hamid writes of subconscious discrimination, American fear of men of Middle Eastern descent due to events like this one, and of course the September 11th attacks, a fear that makes us human, though strains our relationships with people from other nations. Dumas, an Iranian American who immigrated as a child only a few years before the hostage crises tells of the discrimination her family faced in the aftermath, her father losing his job and unable to find a new one. Often times, fear and hatred makes us human as much as compassion and courage, all sides of our character necessary to shape and navigate a culturally and politically complex world. In Argo, we learn than placing blame is ineffective and irrelevant. What matters is protecting each other against our own better interest. Real heroes are those who see that their humanitarian responsibilities are not confinedtotheir own governments, people like Tony Mendez, Ken Taylor, and Sahar, people from three nations who came together to rescue the innocent, not caring which country they were from or what wrongs any of their governments committed, for courage is not motivated by politics.