The film is exactly what it intends to be. It is suspenseful and wildly entertaining, with enough of a veneer of authenticity to allow you to suspend disbelief for the duration of the film. It opens with the old-school Warner logo (circa 1979), and the film is peppered with real news broadcasts from the time with recognizable news anchors. The six Americans being rescued from Iran bear striking resemblance to their real-life counterparts (as we are shown during the closing credits). President Carter’s voice even makes an appearance during the credits.
The film has been criticized by some for lacking historical accuracy. Complications in the plan are added to create a more suspenseful story. The credit is given primarily to the US, and minimizes Canada’s role in the rescue. Britain and New Zealand’s roles as protectors of the six were not acknowledged in the film. Director Ben Affleck notes in 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.” The film also adds a last-minute cancellation of the plan, which Mendez ignores, forcing his colleagues back home to scramble to get plane tickets lined up for them. In real life, the tickets were purchased long in advance. The choice to present Mendez as the man with the plan is a way to streamline the narrative and provide the audience with an emotional anchor.
I’d also like to suggest that the film honestly presents itself as a Hollywood creation. The film is filled to the brim with recognizable character actors and movie stars, so you’re constantly reminded, this is a movie. John Goodman plays John Chambers, a movie makeup artist who won an Academy Award for his work on Planet of the Apes, and who also did work for the CIA. He is the CIA’s entre into Hollywood, and he’s also one of the most recognizable faces in the movie. I don’t think this is an accident. Most of the Hollywood segments are played for laughs, and play on Hollywood cliches. Despite taking place during a golden age of Hollywood film, the films referenced in Argo are primarily science fiction (mostly Star Wars), with little resemblance to reality. I think this is intended to mitigate the “creative license” the filmmakers take with historical fact.
One more thing to support this idea: the film opens with comic-book like images depicting Iranian recent history. Only later do we see what these images are: storyboards. Storyboarding is a step in filmmaking to help plan out production, literally boards with drawings on them to convey the story and camera positions. Tony Mendez brings storyboards with him to Iran as a prop for the fake movie they are making, as proof that it is real. In a tense scene late in the movie, the storyboards are employed to convince militants that the movie is real. I think the storyboards at the beginning of the film are a reminder that even though the film is based on a real story, we are entering Hollywood movie territory, where history is being employed as a tool to tell a story and entertain the audience. Therefore, take all within with a grain of salt.
Why can’t the film be accurate and still be a good movie? It can happen, but more often, cleaving too closely to the source material results in a poorer film. Whereas creative license coupled with faithfulness to the spirit of the source material can have brilliant results. And that’s all I’ve learned from watching Harry Potter movies.
For me the one criticism of the film that does stick is that it portrays Iranians in a bad light. It’s impossible to watch this film and not think about current attitudes by Americans and Middle Easterners about each other, and the film does acknowledge the parallels. I don’t think it goes far enough, though, to balance the many images of militant Iranian revolutionaries. My husband noted that he wished the film had been longer, to flesh out the Iranian housekeeper’s story, and I agree. More of her story would have gone a long way to present more balance in representation.