NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by L.
1979. The Iranian Revolution. The previous ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, has been overthrown and replaced with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Shah, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, is given asylum in the United States while undergoing treatment. The response back in Iran is violent, with protestors gathering around the U.S. Embassy.
Inside the Embassy, the 58 employees scramble to shred all the classified material they have on hand including a dossier of all the employees in the building. As the crowd gets more and more restless, the employees get more and more frightened. With protestors scaling the gates, the employees know that it is only a matter of time until there is a breach. A protestor arrives with a pair of bolt cutters and soon the Embassy is being overrun.
The only building in the compound that has an exit right into the street is the Office of Visas, on the opposite end of the compound. Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) gathers the rest of his employees to make a decision about whether or not they should leave. With Anders: Cora and Mark Lijek (Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham), Kathy and Joe Stafford (Kerry Bishe, Scoot McNairy) and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane). The employs destroy all the U.S. Visa plates and then escort the applicants within the office into the street. But they’re alone and don’t know what to do.
Back in Washington, the State Department scrambles to make sense of what has happened. Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler), the Chief of Staff to President Carter, is briefed on the situation: the six who escaped were turned away by the British Embassy but were taken in by the Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The Iranians are scouring the streets looking for anyone they can consider sympathizers to the Shah especially any Americans who might have escaped the Embassy. If they are found, they will be publicly executed and put on display for the world.
Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) has passed out on his futon with the television on. His apartment has open boxes of old Chinese food and boxes piled up around the bed. His phone rings it’s his boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) he’s been called to discuss the possibility of exfiltrating the “Houseguests” from the Canadian Ambassador’s house. Mendez arrives and listens to the ideas being floated around by the State department all terrible as they are either designed for other regions or rely on seasonal cover stories.
Mendez returns home that evening and calls his son, Ian, who is watching one of the original Planet of the Apes films. Mendez switches the station from news coverage of the Tehran crisis and the other 52 hostages within the embassy and looks at the film while he talks about his son’s day at school. Staring at the costumes, Mendez has a moment of inspiration. He returns to the C.I.A. headquarters and approaches Jack with the idea and Jack sends it up the chain: Mendez has two days to see what he can put together.
Mendez calls a former consultant, John Chambers (John Goodman), who is a Hollywood prosthetics artist. Mendez explains his idea: he is going to create a fake film that needs to appear legitimate and have an actual production office in Hollywood. Chambers is intrigued by the idea and tells Mendez that they will need a producer with clout to sell the story.
The two approach a highly decorated producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and he agrees to help but points out that they will need a script set in the Middle East to justify a scouting party of Canadian filmmakers. Siegel points out that it will need to be completely authentic: they will need to give this fake film publicity to lend credence to the story. Digging through piles of unoptioned scripts, Mendez finds a space tale with Middle Eastern influences called “Argo.” It’s passable, so Mendez and Siegel go to buy the rights.
The pair strong arm the agent representing the client and secure the rights to film Argo for 10 grand. Afterwards, they stop to get tacos and talk about their children. Siegel has two daughters he doesn’t speak to because he was a lousy father. Mendez explains that he and his wife are on a break and that Ian has to be with his mother because of his age. Siegel agrees. Jack calls Mendez to inform him that there is no more time Mendez needs to solidify the cover story before they can present it to the higher ups at the State department.
Siegel orders posters, story boards and a giant read through of the script at the Hilton hotel. The last thing the film needs to get approval as a “credible” back story is exposure. Releasing news that the film will start shooting in March and that their production team is currently scouting locations in the Middle East puts the most important pieces into play. Siegel, Mendez and Chambers have a small toast before Mendez returns to Washington D.C. for his orders.
During dinner, the Houseguests are arguing about the situation with the Shah when the cutlery starts to shake. Ken guides them back into their hiding place: a trap door beneath the carpet. Living in a state of constant fear, the six can’t leave the premises for even a moment there are eyes everywhere.
The project is given agency approval. Jack drives Mendez to the airport. In the car, Mendez reflects on the fact that this is a terrible idea and that he should have brought more books to read in prison. Jack reassures Mendez he’ll be dead long before the Iranians throw him in prison. Mendez enters the airport and calls his wife. No one answers, so Mendez doesn’t get to say goodbye to Ian. Afraid he might not see his son again, Mendez writes Ian a quick postcard and slides it into a mailbox before boarding the plane.
Touring several Middle Eastern countries under the guise of “scouting locations”, Mendez meets with a British contact. His contact informs him that the Iranian government has hired children to piece together the shredded documents from the Embassy including the dossier. Once it’s complete, the hostage takers will realize that they are missing the Houseguests. The contact cautions Mendez, making it clear that they need the element of surprise if Mendez is going to get them out of the country.
Cleaning up after a meal, Joe laments to Mark that when the riots started 9 months prior, Kathy had begged him to leave the country, but he had begged that they stay a bit longer. In the kitchen, the housekeeper, Sahar, intimates the Ken’s wife that she knows the guests are not American because they have never left the house. This worries the Ambassador and his wife as they don’t know if they can trust Sahar.
Mendez visits the Iranian consulate and presents his plan to scout for locations, which gets approval. He lands in Iran and realizes that anyone who enters the country has to fill out an entrance paper with a carbon copy. The airport retains the carbon copy while the traveler keeps the original, allowing the airport to confirm that a traveler came in when they say they did. Mendez submits his own paper and steals 6 extras for the Houseguests. As he leaves, a man is dragged away from his family by the Iranian guards leaving his family crying.
Traveling to the Canadian Embassy, he meets with Ken and thanks him for protecting the hostages. Ken takes Mendez home and introduces him to the six. Mark does not trust Mendez, pointing out that they don’t even know his real name. Mendez gives them their dossiers and tells them that they need to perfect them over the next 48 hours. Mark antagonizes Mendez, insisting that the only ones who have something to lose are the Houseguests…until Kathy points out that Mendez’ life is also on the line. He leaves them, telling them that tomorrow they will have to do their tour of the bazaar.
Back at his hotel room, Mendez calls Jack to tell him about the approval, but Jack points out that it is likely the Iranian government calling their bluff. Mendez insists that the Houseguests will be ready.
The next day, the Houseguests start preparing their disguises they have to look different but exactly like their new, fake Canadian passports. Mark refuses to get dressed and when Mendez realizes that he’s not budging, he tells him that his name is Tony Mendez, he has a son waiting for him back home, and that he’s been doing exfiltrations for years though this situation is a first. He’s their only shot of getting out of the country alive.
The group meets with an Iranian official who takes them on a tour. It goes smoothly until Kathy takes a photo of a man’s shop. The man comes out screaming that he did not give permission for Americans to take pictures of his shop after his son was killed. Kathy offers the photo back, but the man only screams louder. The official ushers them away from the gathering crowd, while the Houseguests insist that they are Canadians. Unbeknownst to them, the official has spies surrounding the bazaar taking photos of the “film crew” for their records.
Another official pays a visit to the Ambassador’s house while the others are out. He approaches Sahar and asks her how long the “Canadians” have been staying at the house. When she doesn’t answer, he reminds her that those who hold their tongue sin in silence implying that she would receive whatever punishment befalls the others. After a moment, she insists that the visitors arrived two days prior. The official thanks her and leaves.
When the others return home, they are frightened, and Mendez immediately begins drilling them on their covers and putting them under the same amount of pressure that the Iranian guards at the check point will put them through. He insists that there are three checkpoints: the ticket agent, the arrival form comparisons and then the final checkpoint a trap designed to catch anyone who might be American. Because the guards have been educated abroad, they will be familiar enough to try and catch them. They practice until Mendez is called into another room by Ken.
Ken hands Mendez the phone: it’s Jack. The plan’s off. Jordan has been prepping the U.S. military to go in and recover the other hostages in the Embassy. If the Houseguests are caught they can be safely escorted to the others and, if they’re killed, it will be an international outrage. But if they were to be caught at the airport pretending to be Canadian in a failed CIA attempt, it would be an international mess. Ken tells Mendez to burn the passports when he leaves. They agree not to tell the Houseguests…it will be best if Mendez just never shows up.
As Mendez leaves, he steals a bottle of liquor from Ken’s cabinet and spends the night wrestling with his demons. He knows that he can’t leave the Houseguests in the house since Ken has been called back to Canada.
Morning: Kathy notes that Mendez is late. Mendez calls Jack and tells him that the Houseguests are his responsibility, and he’s going to bring them home. He hangs up and goes to get them, to the surprise of Ken.
In the production office, Chambers and Siegel, who have been waiting by the telephone from a call from the Iranian government, are given the news that the project was scrapped and decide to go to a bar.
The Houseguests leave with Mendez as Ken and his wife leave for the border via train. Sahar leaves and crosses over into Iraq.
Jack scrambles to put together the necessities which were scrapped. They need to get President Carter to sign off on the operation in order to get the tickets for the Houseguests. Jack’s calls are screened so he pretends to be the teacher of Hamilton’s kids and tells his secretary that it’s an emergency. He’s patched through to the West Wing.
The group arrives at the airport and reaches the ticket agent. The agent can’t find any reservations. Mendez asks that she check again, and the reservations appear Jack got approval. The group walks through the airport and arrives at the next checkpoint. Bob hands over his paper but the guard can’t find the matching slip. He calls his superior and Mendez reminds Bob to show them the approval papers they received from the government official for the scouting project. The superior gives them the go ahead, and they arrive at the final checkpoint…only to be promptly escorted into a side room.
The official who interrogated Sahar is given the reassembled photos and compares them to the photos taken in the bazaar. Realizing that they have been hiding in the Ambassador’s house they storm the building but find the place abandoned. He calls the airport to give them heads up.
Siegel and Chambers return from their drinks to find a filming going on in the streets preventing them from getting across. After waiting a ridiculous amount of time, Siegel pushes the roadblock aside and tells the production assistant to call his lawyers since he’s going to be in the movie they’re shooting.
Mendez introduces himself to the guard as a film producer and gives him his card. The men don’t believe the story so Mark steps up, laying out everything he memorized about the film’s story and showing the story boards with a passion. The guards wonder why he can speak their language and he simply responds “I want to film in Iran, why wouldn’t I speak the language?” After his passionate outburst, the head guard calls the number on Mendez’ card.
The phone rings until Chambers narrowly rushes into the room. The guard asks him if he may speak with Tony, but Chambers informs the guard that he is currently in the Middle East scouting locations for Argo. The guard hangs up and allows the Houseguests onto the bus that will take them to their plane.
The official reaches a guard in the airport, and the guard races to the desk to stop the Houseguests. As they board the plane and strap in, the guards fire at the door way and try to get to the plane and stop it. As it starts to take off, Mendez sees numerous police cars and military vehicles streaking down the tarmac after the plane, desperately trying to prevent its take off. The plane leaves and the Houseguests celebrate with cheers. Mark approaches Mendez and shakes his hand thanking him for saving their lives.
The operation is an overwhelming success. The CIA admits no public involvement, allowing Canada to take credit for rescuing the six hostages. Jack tells Mendez that President Carter is going to give him a special commendation: the highest honor for clandestine service the nation can bestow. Mendez tells Jack that if they move the date, he can bring Ian, but Jack tells him that it’s a classified op no one can know what Mendez did. “So they’re going to give me a medal and take it away?” “Yep.” Jack leaves Mendez, saying that Carter called him a “true American.” “A true American what?” “Not a clue!”
Mendez goes to hand over all of his storyboards and evidence. He notices one of the storyboards was still in his bag and decides to hide it: the only proof of what he’s done. As he leaves, he gets a call from Siegel who bitches about a studio exec complaining about how Hollywood couldn’t come up with ideas half as good as the Canadians. Siegel informs Mendez that he told the exec: “Ar-go fuck yourself.” Chambers cleans out the production office, and an executive asks what happened with the film. Chambers tells the exec that it went into turnaround and smiles to himself as he packs up the room.
Mendez drives to his wife’s house and asks if he can come in. He’s allowed in and reads to Ian, placing the storyboard he rescued on Ian’s shelf of toys.
The title cards inform us of the case’s declassification during the Clinton administration, and that after 444 days, all the other hostages were released. Mendez remained close with Chambers until Chamber’s death in 2001. Mendez currently resides in Maryland with his family.