Es­pi­onage ca­per

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

(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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.