Film Review: Argo (15)

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Director: Ben Affleck

Running time: 120 minutes

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‘IF I’M doing to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” says movie producer Lester Siegel, and the funny thing about Ben Affleck’s real movie about the making of a fake movie is that Argo smells like a hit, and not just because it’s the only film this year to weld together Iran and Planet Of The Apes.

The beginning is more sober: a swift history lesson about the deposing of the tyrannical Shah of Iran, who stirred up protest by seeking refuge in America. In response, Iran held 52 employees of the American Embassy captive for 444 days, recreated by Affleck with a terrifically tense sequence about document shredding, which helped six employees flee the embassy and hide in the Canadian building thanks to Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).

But how to spirit them out of the country? CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) turns down scenarios such as cycling to freedom (in winter), or helping them pose as returning teachers or tourists (both groups had long since left the country). Then a chance viewing of Planet Of The Apes gives him pause. Why not pose as the producer of a phony Star Wars rip-off called Argo and fly into Iran on the pretext of scouting desert locations? After teaching the six their cover stories as his film crew, they could then fly out together on false Canadian passports, past the armed guards at the airport.

Mendez’s boss (Bryan Cranston) agrees that this is a bad idea, but still the best bad idea they have. So a producer and make-up artist – Lester Siegel and John Chambers (Alan Arkin and John Goodman) – are enlisted to create a sham movie, and go through the stages of a real production, including buying a script, story-boarding the scenes, setting up cast calls and putting ads in Variety.

You could imagine that another director might have been tempted to make this the heart of the film. It’s certainly the part where Affleck seems to have the most fun. Uncertain whether a penpusher can pass as Hollywood director, Mendez is reassured by Chambers. “You can teach a rhesus monkey how to direct,” he snorts.

It’s to Affleck’s credit that he manages to knit Hollywood levity into the genuinely gripping question of whether the embassy Americans can pull this off. The six are understandably sceptical and terrified of being caught, and the only Farsi speaker in the group is on the brink of refusing to co-operate at all.

Like Clint Eastwood, Affleck is not a complicated film-maker, although the film does have some of Steven Soderbergh’s cine-geekery: a fussiness over film stock and grain, plus a load of hat tips to 1970s portraits of political paranoia such as Three Days Of The Condor. Mindful of the look of the era, the film also has a ball displaying clunky glasses, unrestricted smoking, frazzled nerves and frizzled hair.

None the less, Argo plays fast and loose with some of the history, tending to marginalise the heroic help from the Canadians, and creating a third act drama that you won’t find in any of the declassified accounts. Most notably of all, Affleck plays a man called Mendez, and when the film displays the real characters in a final photo montage it’s remarkable how closely the fine low-key cast resemble their namesakes, except for the lanky white guy from Boston pictured beside the heroic ­Hispanic spook. «

On general release from Wednesday