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Thrilling history lesson with a Hollywood twist

Argo (15)

multi-tasking: Ben Affleck cements his reputation as a great director and stars as a CIA agent who hatches an eccentric plan in his thriller about the Iran hostage crisis, which has a distinctly 1970s feel.
multi-tasking: Ben Affleck cements his reputation as a great director and stars as a CIA agent who hatches an eccentric plan in his thriller about the Iran hostage crisis, which has a distinctly 1970s feel.

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Dir: Ben Affleck

With: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin

Runtime: 120 minutes

BEN Affleck was just seven at the time of the Iran hostage crisis, and eight when the golden age of Seventies cinema ended. That hasn't stopped him making Argo, a movie that terrifyingly recreates the first, fondly celebrates the second, and confirms his place as one of the savviest thriller directors around.

For those who don't remember the Seventies, it was a time of three-day weeks and The Godfather, of IMF bailouts and Chinatown, a time when cinema valued strong stories over puny sequels, and tales of recognisably real people over superheroes. A time, in short, when grown-ups were the target audience.

Argo belongs in that tradition but it has neat modern touches too, chief of which is a knowing sense of humour. We might be watching a story set in 1979, but Affleck doesn't forget that he is making a film for audiences of today – cynicism, short attention spans and all.

He starts, for example, with a brief history lesson explaining how it came to pass that on November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, thus beginning a 444-day hostage crisis that left the American psyche deeply scarred and Jimmy Carter's presidency in shreds.

Context established and some attempt at balance made, Affleck fires up his engines. The early scenes in the embassy, with frantic staff stuffing documents into shredders and phoning for help, drive home the sense of chaos and alarm. As the protesters get through the gates, six staff manage to escape and make it to the Canadian Embassy. From being hostages in waiting, the six are now hostages to fortune, petrified of being discovered. Back in the US, diplomatic wheels begin to turn to free them.

It is at this point that the true story takes a turn for the truly bizarre, as Hollywood is called on by the CIA to do its patriotic duty. With the help of a renowned make-up artist (John Goodman) and a veteran producer (Alan Arkin), a fake science-fiction film called Argo will be set up. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) will enter Iran on the pretext of scouting for locations, collect the six, who will also pose as filmmakers, and try to get out again. Mission: Insane.

Affleck, Goodman and Arkin have great fun with the Hollywood segment of the film. The industry, with its PR junkets, hardball deal making and hot and cold running hooey, is lampooned royally. "You can train a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day," Goodman tells Affleck. But there's a lot of affection there too. Hollywood might be the world capital of fake, is the message, but it's marginally more reliable, and far more likeable, than Washington DC with its by-the- book bureaucrats and backside-covering politicians.

Affleck cuts back and forth between the Hollywood end of the story and what is happening in Tehran and DC. It is a difficult balance to strike between light and shade, but he manages it, or rather Goodman and Arkin manage it. Their world is clearly a universe away from anything else happening in the film. Far from breaking the mood, the spells in Hollywood are a welcome relief from the tension elsewhere. A few minutes in the company of these consummate pros and we are ready to go back into the Tehran fray.

And what a fray Affleck makes it seem as the six agonise over what to do. Should they stay and risk capture, or make a run for it and risk capture? Of the six, Scoot McNairy (so impressive in Killing Them Softly and Monsters) is the standout turn as the doubting Thomas (or in his case Joe). Also well worth a mention is the excellent Bryan Cranston, playing Affleck's long-suffering boss.

In case we forget this drama was for real, Affleck brings in footage from the time showing yellow ribbons in every American yard and sombre newscasts. To add to the Seventies feel, he uses film stock from the era, giving the movie a grainy, realistic look. Anorak-wearers will note he uses the old Warner Bros logo from the time as well. This man has it bad when it comes to a love of Seventies cinema.

When the results are this impressive, you too might be nostalgic for a time when directors went all out to entertain, and hang any doubts. And there are some. At times you can almost hear the story's wheels buckling under the strain as twist follows turn. The score is similarly overheated, and that early attempt at balance does not last long, such are the demands of the story.

But you can forgive such excesses in the name of having an exciting time. Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now Argo: as a helmer of smart, rattle-along thrillers, the boy who wrote Good Will Hunting kid is now the man.

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