Ben Affleck's Argo is a suspenseful – and funny – retelling of the rescue of six U.S. embassy workers during the Iranian hostage crisis, which dragged on from 1979 to 1981. After hiding for months in the home of the Canadian ambassador, the six escape in broad daylight by pretending to be Canadians in Tehran to scout movie locations, a so-crazy-it-just-might-work scheme dreamed up by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The film is doing great box office, the critics love it, and there is bold talk of multiple Oscar nominations. That can mean only one thing: a prequel!
Picture this: a gripping depiction of another agency-orchestrated stunt – the overthrow of Iran's elected government in 1953 because prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh had nationalized British oil interests. The coup led to the brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the infamous shah, which in turn led directly to the hostage crisis and, less directly, the nuke-craving Iran we know today.
The thing practically writes itself. The entire plot, from conception to execution, is laid out in a document, now declassified, written the following year by one of the plotters. Titled "Clandestine Service History: Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq (sic) of Iran, November 1952 - August 1953," it is a boastful account of the CIA's first successful ousting of a sovereign government, sort of an instruction manual for Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, etc. So there is plenty of suspense, but is there any comedy?
Mr. Affleck finds humour in the CIA's manufactured backstory for the sci-fi film (to be called Argo) that serves as the rescue's cover. He lets John Goodman and Alan Arkin ham their way through their roles as eager Hollywood operatives who acquire a script under false premises, put up fake posters in a fake office, produce fake story boards, and stage a fake press conference so a fake story can be planted in the press.
If that's funny, Argo 2: Genesis has it beat. We have agents planting phony stories in newspapers whose editors have been bribed into compliance. We also have operatives setting off bombs in Tehran and blaming the prime minister's allies for the carnage; coded messages on BBC radio to reassure the spineless shah of Britain's support (Sacha Baron Cohen is a natural dictator); and a touching celebratory meeting between a CIA agent and an ailing prime minister Winston Churchill (Jack Black?) at 10 Downing Street after the coup. Also like Argo, there's a cliffhanger ending in which the mission almost goes off the rails.
Best of all, the CIA account shares the Affleck film's tone of self-congratulation – a hubris blind to the fact that toying with the affairs of a foreign nation to protect oil profits might generate blowback one day harnessed by a radical and dangerous regime.
But we're talking about the prequel here, which, judging by the success of Argo, should be green-lit any day. The sequel, meanwhile, is still being written.