Argo (2012) Movie Review for History Teachers | Student Handouts
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Argo (2012) > U.S. History > New Conservatism > Books and Films
Length: 120 minutes (2 hours)

Age appropriateness: Argo is officially rated "R" in the United States due to language and violence. Considering the subject matter of the film (Iran during the takeover by Ayatollah Khomeini's forces), the violence is not gratuitous, and I would consider this film as safe for classroom viewing by high school students.

Argo (2012) Review and Guide for History TeachersCreators and stars: Adrienne Barbeau, Alan Arkin, Ben Affleck, Bob Gunton, Bryan Cranston, Chris Messina, Chris Terrio, Christopher Denham, Clea DuVall, Fouad Hajji, George Clooney, Grant Heslov, John Goodman, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Tate Donovan, Titus Welliver, Victor Garber, Warner Brothers Pictures, Zeljko Ivanek

Accuracy: Argo is an imaginative retelling of actual events. The setting is Tehran, Iran, during the 1979 hostage crisis. It follows the plot to aid six American embassy workers in their escape from the country.

As of this publication date, Argo has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, and has won Golden Globes for Best Picture--Drama and Best Director (Ben Affleck).

Review: Based on pure entertainment value, Argo is a thrilling film that will keep high schoolers riveted. From an educational perspective, things get a bit more complicated.

Argo is based on Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez (the CIA operative played by Ben Affleck in the film) and The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman. The film shows six Americans escaping from the U.S. embassy in Tehran as it is overrun by young revolutionaries. The six take refuge in the Canadian embassy (in reality, three of the Americans hid out with another Canadian national). Mendez works with Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman) to create a fictional film production company; the cover story for the Americans' escape will be that they are Canadians scouting filming locations in Iran for Argo (originally titled Lord of Light). Amazingly, this tale of a fake movie is true.  Even more amazingly, and not mentioned in the film, is that luminaries like Ray Bradbury helped get the fake production into gear.

Critics of the film's accuracy point out that its most compelling and thrill-filled scenes are faked. For example, the operation went smoothly, with no real problems from the Iranian authorities. Neither the State Department nor the CIA ever pulled the plug on it, and Mendez and the six embassy workers never had their plane chased along the airport tarmac. Additionally, the Canadians were actively involved in the escape plan, and were not passive participants (a point somewhat covered during the film's closing credits).

The question then is whether or not Argo is educational despite its use of artistic license. My answer is yes.Argo does a fantastic job of recreating the tension and uncertainty that characterized the Iranian hostage crisis without kids feeling like they're having a history lesson forced upon them. For example, there is a fictional scene in which the six are taken by Mendez on a location hunt in order to fool the Iranian Ministry of Culture into believing the cover story. Although made up, this scene allows for displays of the level of animosity felt toward Westerners and Western-friendly Iranians at the time. It also allows for images displaying what was going on outside of the safety of the embassies--a man hanging from a construction crane, the juxtaposition of women in burqas eating at a KFC nearby, protesters in the street, etc.

The opening scenes of the film are also surprisingly fair to the Iranian revolutionaries themselves. The corrupt leadership of the Shah is accurately summarized, which should help students to understand why Iran wanted him returned to the country. Click here to enlarge the film poster.
Review and discussion questions: (1) Describe Iran under the Shah's rule. (2) What exiled Muslim cleric returned to Iran to lead the revolution? (3) Why was the American embassy targeted by the revolutionaries? (4) Was it fair of the filmmakers to give Canadians a more passive role in these events? (5) Imagine that you are Sahar, the Canadians' housekeeper. Would you remain silent about the "guests"? Why or why not? (6) Why do you suppose that so many young people, including young women, were part of the Iranian Revolution? (7) Locate Tehran, Iran, on a map.

Vocabulary terms and names: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), demonstrations, diplomat, embassy, espionage, execution, Hezbollah, hostage, Iran, Iranian Revolution, President Jimmy Carter, monarchy, Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, Persia, prisoner, protesters, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shi'a Islam, spy, street fighting, Tehran, theocracy, Tony Mendez, U.S. State Department, westernization
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Argo Movie Review Publication Date for Citation Purposes: January 20, 2013