‘Argo’ – a stranger than fiction rescue tale on HBO Max

Winner of the 2013 Academy Award for best picture, Argo (2012) is also the name of a fake movie and a real-life rescue stranger-than-fiction mission to rescue the six Americans who escaped the U.S. Embassy in Iran when it was stormed in 1980.

Ben Affleck directs (it’s his third film behind the camera) and takes the lead as CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez, the man who concocted a plan that involved creating a fake Hollywood movie production as cover to the rescue of the six Americans, who were hiding out in the Canadian embassy in Tehran. Mendez is the fulcrum of the story and Affleck plays the part of the escape mastermind with the low-key savvy of a professional managing the complicated moving parts.

Part of the film is like a good-natured heist movie or confidence game, with Mendez teaming up with two Hollywood veterans, special effects make-up artist John Chambers (played with genial enthusiasm by John Goodman) and old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, all tart sass and sardonic humor), to convince Hollywood (and by extension the officials in Iran) that their fake picture is the real deal. The rest is a mix of spy movie thriller and political drama, with Mendez and his CIA support team (notably Bryan Cranston as his ragged boss) running interference stateside while Mendez coaches his civilian charges through the checkpoints and interrogations of Iranian airport security.



It’s a savvy picture that takes a few liberties with the historical record to create a nail-biter of an escape thriller. But if Affleck the director pushes the adrenaline for maximum tension, Affleck the actor is all restraint as Mendez, letting the others showboat in the key scenes while he hangs back, taking stock and holding it all together. Just like a director. And when you come down to it, there is something oddly appropriate in the way this meeting of Hollywood fakery and true-story spycraft plays out like a movie. Affleck makes it an absolutely compelling movie without getting too self-congratulatory about it. For all the embellishments, he never lets us forget that their lives are on the line.

While it never manages the complexity of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s real-life American covert operation drama that also came out in 2012, it is a solid, well-made, compelling film with personality, humor, drama, tension, and a superb sense of time and place.

Affleck won the best director award from the Director’s Guild of America, best director and best picture Golden Globes, an award for the ensemble cast from the Screen Actors Guild, and BAFTA wins for best picture and best director. While Affleck was left out of the best director Oscar nominations, Argo went on to win best picture at the Academy Awards. It also won Oscars for the screenplay by Chris Terrio and for film editing.

A year later, Affleck released an “extended edition” on disc. The added footage mostly fills out Tony’s family life, with phone conversations with his wife (Taylor Schilling, who was almost absent in the original film) and son showing the tensions of their separation.

Rated R

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Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Prime, iTunes, GooglePlay, Fandango, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Argo [Blu-ray]
Argo: The Declassified Extended Edition [Blu-ray]
Argo [DVD]
Argo [4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray]

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The Blu-ray and DVD releases include the 16-minute featurette “Rescued From Tehran: We Were There” featuring the real Tony Mendez, President Jimmy Carter, former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, and the “house guests” Mark Lijek, Bob Anders, Cora Lijek, Kathy Stafford, and Lee Schatz who were hidden in the Canadian Embassy, telling the story in their words.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the “Picture-in-Picture: Eyewitness Account,” a running audio-visual commentary track with Mendez, President Carter, Taylor, the “house guests” (as they are identified in their interview clips), even the housemaid who worked at the embassy and kept the secret, plus the 2004 Canadian documentary “Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option” and the short featurettes “Argo: Absolute Authenticity” and “Argo: The CIA and Hollywood Connection” and a bonus DVD.

The “Extended Edition” (subtitled “Declassified”) adds about nine minutes of footage to the film, almost all of it dealing with Tony Mendez’s family life, plus a bonus disc with an hour of additional supplements. “Argo Declassified” revisits the history behind the story, “The Istanbul Journey” looks at the three-week shoot in Turkey (which doubled for Iran in the film), “Ben Affleck’s Balancing Act” on the challenges of being a director, actor, and producer on the same film, the interview featurettes “A Discussion with the Cast of Argo” (with clips from a Q&A session with Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Clea Duvall and others) and “Tony Mendez on Tony Mendez” (with the real-life agent discussing the mission and his career in general), and a montage of clips features characters speaking the film’s signature phrase “Argo F**k Yourself.”

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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