(M) ★★★★✩ National release
D(R18+) ★★ Limited release
✩✩ IRECTED by Bob Baker from a screenplay by Mary Anne Boyd, Argo is a Hollywood science fiction adventure based loosely on Star Wars, George Lucas’s blockbuster hit from 1977. Well, not exactly. That Argo was planned but never made. As many readers will know, it was a fake film funded by the CIA as a cover for the rescue of six American diplomats trapped in the Canadian embassy in Tehran after the Iranian revolution of 1979. The planning of the phantom Argo, a project known in US espionage circles as the Canadian Caper, is brilliantly recounted in the real Argo, a topnotch thriller directed by Ben Affleck, who also plays Tony Mendez, the CIA operative in charge of the operation.
That word caper was spot-on. It must have been clear from the start that the rescue plan had all the comic potential and far-fetched absurdity of a Hollywood caper movie (and it may be no coincidence that George Clooney, the star of Ocean’s Eleven, one of the great caper movies of all time, is one of Argo’s producers). It’s not often we see an espionage thriller, especially one based on grim historical reality, executed with the light and easy touch that Affleck has brought to his film. There is no bloodshed, no ugly violence. No one (to the best of my recollection) fires a gun in anger. Chris Terrio’s screenplay bristles with witty lines, and the opening recap of recent Iranian history, a compilation of animation effects, old newsreel footage and comic-strip frivolity, fully captures the tone of the film that follows — a mixture of humour and white-knuckle suspense reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock at his best.
And what a marvellous, ridiculous, unbelievable story it is. Hitch, who loved espionage yarns, would have relished this one. The details remained classified on the orders of president Jimmy Carter until Bill Clinton lifted the veil in 1994. Even so, it’s surprising that we’ve waited nearly 20 years for Hollywood to tell the story. Terrio’s screenplay is based on Mendez’s memoir and published research by Joshuah Bearman. We may take it the story as told is true in its essentials, though inevitably some details are in dispute. Affleck has made the point that Argo is ‘‘ based on’’ a true story — suggesting the usual liberties have been taken in the interests of dramatic effect. And who cares with a film as enjoyable as this?
The early scenes of revolution are convincing and frightening. Affleck used hordes of extras for his mob scenes rather than rely on digital imaging, and every face in the crowd looks suitably menacing. When protesters stormed the US embassy in 1979 most of the staff were taken hostage, with the exception of six workers who evaded capture and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The State Department kept their escape secret while plans for their rescue were discussed in Washington. When Mendez, with a reputation as the CIA’s top expert in ‘‘ exfiltration’’, is put on the case, he immediately rejects every suggested rescue plan as unworkable. Six American cyclists on a holiday tour, six American teachers on an educational mission? Forget it. The Iranians would never fall for that stuff.
The idea for the fake movie comes to him while he’s watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV with his small son. I have no idea if it really happened this way, but it’s a nice thought for Hollywood movie buffs.
Mendez’s boss (Bryan Cranston) thinks the fake movie is a bad idea until Mendez insists it’s ‘‘ the best bad idea we’ve got’’. The plan is to give the six Americans false identities and pass them off as film crew members scouting for exotic locations. But if a fake movie is going to convince the Iranians it will require genuine backup. So a real script must be written, a real producer must be found, a fake studio must be built and suitable references planted in Variety — all of which is accomplished with the help of veteran Hollywood make-up expert John Chambers (a part relished by John Goodman). Chambers puts the CIA in touch with a likely producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, excellent as well), who warms to the project and insists that ‘‘ if we’re going to make a fake movie, I want it to be a fake hit’’.
If the Bond films had taken themselves more seriously someone might have made one as good as Argo. Mendez is no 007, but he’s principled, courageous and resourceful, and