The movie opens with a series of comic book panels illustrating the region's history, from the Persian Empire to the modern state of Iran, including the joint U.S./U.K. overthrow of the democratically elected head of state and installation of the Shah. Then it shifts to Iran, in November of 1979 as the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is besieged by a mob of Iranian militants. Most of the staff are taken hostage, but six of them escape to the home of the Canadian ambassador.
Tony Mendez, a CIA 'exfiltration' operative is consulted, but he hasn't any ideas until he learns about the film Battle for the Planet of the Apes from his son. This gives him the idea to use the cover story of location scouting for a science-fiction film to extract the Americans.
Mendez and co-conspirator O'Donnell recruit Hollywood effects artist John Chambers (best known for creating Spock's ears) to help. Chambers instructs them on how to put a legitimate looking film project together, and connects them with film mogul Lester Siegel, who is initially reluctant but has a change of heart after seeing Americans killed on TV. They decide to make a science fiction film, Argo, a Star Wars knock-off as their cover story. They then recruit U.S. Army veteran Jack Kirby to provide comic art to help their cover story. Meanwhile, the Iranians learn there have been escapees from the Embassy.
Mendez eventually travels to Istanbul, Turkey, where he makes connections and strengthens the cover story before going to Iran and making contact with the escapees. Armed with fake passports they accompany Mendez on fake 'location scouting' to enhance their cover story, but find that all appearances in public go bad as Westerners in general are routinely harassed and threatened.
The C.I.A. is pressured to abort on the operation to prevent interference with a hostage rescue mission, but knowing that he's already risked exposing the escapees to execution, Mendez feels he has no choice but to continue, whether or not O'Donnell and the Stateside members of the team are on-board or not.
At the airport, the escapees' flight reservations are initially denied, but then are confirmed at the last minute. They are then detained by a suspicious guard, who only releases them after they show him Jack Kirby's artwork, and give him one of the pieces of original art.
Back in the United States, the C.I.A. buries all records about the mission, including the involvement of Chambers and Kirby, and allows the Canadian government to take credit for the operation until U.S. President Bill Clinton declassifies the documents 20 years later.
The inspiration for the screenplay initially came from a WIRED Magazine article. Preproduction began as early as 2007, though Ben Affleck was not attached as director of the project until 2011. Ben Affleck played the role of Tony Mendez himself. John Chambers was portrayed by John Goodman, and Jack Kirby was played by Michael Parks.
The Warner Bros. lot in Burbank was the location used for the home of Studio Six Productions, the entity behind the phony movie — but the logo on the water tower was changed back to Burbank Studios, as it was then (before Warner Bros. owned the lot, it was used by both WB and Columbia Pictures). Many of the props were purchased off eBay so the production could have real Star Trek toys and other props like period appropriate televisions, etc.
The film features liberal use of period rock and soul hits, mostly by artists on the Warner Bros. label.
Argo received Rottentomatoe's 2012 'Golden Tomato' award for given for ‘Best Reviewed Film In Wide Release’. It had a 96% positive score at Rotten Tomatoes, beating The Avengers and Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises. It also received the Oscar for Best Picture.
Comic artist Jim Lee Tweeted after seeing the movie that he not only enjoyed the film, but was surprised to find out that he actually owns some of the original Jack Kirby artwork which he bought at auction with no knowledge of their historical significance.
Like 300 and Persepolis before it, Argo was declared anti-Iranian and banned in Iran shortly after it's premiere. Thus the film's full reception by critics and audiences in Iran is still largely unknown. While it has been condemned by the Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, there have reportedly been clandestine screenings on college campuses that have met with positive audience response, and bootleg copies of the film have become a hot commodity, reputedly even outselling A Separation, the Iranian film that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar the previous year.