Acting under the cover of a Hollywood producer scouting a location for a science fiction film, a CIA agent launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran in 1979.
In 1979, the American embassy in Iran was invaded by Iranian revolutionaries and several Americans were taken hostage. However, six managed to escape to the official residence of the Canadian Ambassador and the CIA was ordered to get them out of the country. With few options, exfiltration expert Tony Mendez devised a daring plan: create a phony Canadian film project looking to shoot in Iran and smuggle the Americans out as its production crew. With the help of some trusted Hollywood contacts, Mendez created the ruse and proceeded to Iran as its associate producer. However, time was running out with the Iranian security forces closing in on the truth while both his charges and the White House had grave doubts about the operation themselves.
After Iranian militants stormed and took control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 taking 56 Americans as hostages, six Americans managed to get away and took refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. After two months of the Canadians putting their lives on the line everyday, the CIA and the US State Department try to come up with a plan to get their people out. Tony Mendez is an “ex filtration” specialist who proposes that they pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie called Argo. Using Hollywood connections, Mendez creates a back story for the movie – ads in Variety, casting calls, inviting he media to a production launch – and then heads off to Iran to lead the six Americans out.
In late 1979, anti-American sentiments are running high in Iran due to the US harboring the ailing former Shah of Iran, who the US put into place in the 1950s, and who many Iranians saw as causing much hardship and death for residents over his close to thirty year reign, solely for his and his family’s own benefit. In November, Iranian militants, working under the name of its new leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, are able to break through the secured perimeter of the US Embassy in Tehran. The fifty plus embassy staff are able to burn or shred most of their documents before they are taken hostage. What the Iranians are unaware of is that six embassy staff members escaped just prior to the raid, and managed to take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his wife, Pat. Fast forward two months… The situation has not changed, and the State Department has brought in the services of the CIA, both to free the hostages and extricate the six in hiding. Tony Mendez with the CIA is the lead consultant on the six. Although many, in his mind, implausible plans are hatched to extricate the six, Tony eventually comes up with what some others believe is an implausible plan: have the six, under Canadian passports, pretend to be a film crew in Iran scouting for locations, with Tony part of that film crew to lead the six out himself. On the advice of Tony’s Hollywood advisors, make-up artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel, Tony’s plan not only has to fool the Iranians to work, it has to fool the entire world, who need to believe that this film is actually in pre-production. Beyond the need to get past the militants, especially at Tehran Airport where they are vigilant about capturing any Americans trying to escape, the plan has many obstacles to success, including: the six, who need to get up to speed basically overnight on their cover stories, some who predetermine certain failure, which if does happen means torturous death; competing priorities in Washington between the six and the fifty plus hostages; the Taylors’ Iranian housekeeper, Sahar, who comes to the realization that the Taylors’ supposed Canadian house guests are not who they say they are; and a mug shot book of embassy staff among the shredded materials, which Iranian sweat shop workers are tasked with putting back together, and which if achieved would identify the fact that the militants are minus six people from among their hostages.