Every now and then a film gives proof to the maxim that fact is stranger than fiction. But there are few that do so with such skill, and so entertainingly, as Argo. If the premise for this fantastic film had been presented as an original idea, even Hollywood suits – who have no qualms about the degree of hokum they sell to the public – would have raised an eyebrow.
The biggest story of 1979 was the storming of the American embassy in Tehran by Iranian militants, soon after the revolution that saw Ayatollah Khomeini overthrow the Shah. The Iranians held 52 Americans hostages, their demands including the return of the despised Shah from his asylum in the US.
What the public didn't know – and wouldn't, until President Clinton had the affair declassified in 1997 – was that six embassy staff had fled the embassy as it was stormed, hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The US government realised that these six were the most imperilled; if they were caught, they would surely be executed. The bold and bizarre plan to extricate them from the country is the subject of the film.
Ben Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the CIA agent charged with getting them out. As the film's director, he opens with a potted history of the years leading up to the revolution, of the US/UK-sponsored coup that put the Shah in power, and of his brutal and corrupt reign. It assures us that we're in safe hands, that although this will be a tale of American courage and ingenuity, it won't be jingoistic.
The re-enactment of the raid on the embassy is fast and frightening. We then switch to the US, where senior government staff struggle to devise an escape plan. In steps Mendez, a glum but efficient chap who recognises the need to think outside the box. Argo: A Cosmic War is born.
Mendez's plan is to enter Iran as a Canadian producer scouting locations for a sci-fi fantasy "with an exotic middle-eastern vibe", then leave with his six fellow filmmakers in tow. In Hollywood he enlists the help of a veteran producer (Alan Arkin) and a renowned make-up artist (John Goodman) to help him establish the movie as a bona fide enterprise. "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit," exclaims Arkin, whose Hollywood bullshit is exactly what is needed to pull off his dangerous mission. When asked by a journalist what the film is about, he snorts "Argof***yourself".
Chris Terri's cracking script defines the film's mercurial nature, shifting from drama to the high comedy of the Hollywood scenes and back to the intensely dramatic when Mendez reaches Tehran. Affleck handles the tonal balance well, sometimes within the same sequence, as when our mirth at a Kentucky Fried Chicken store in Tehran is quickly stifled by the sight of a body hanging from a crane. At one point, Mendez's CIA boss (Bryan Cranston) tells his own superior that "This is the best bad idea we have, sir." As the tension is cranked up, we're never in doubt that the kitschly conceived Argo is a matter of life and death.
The period detail is top-notch, performances uniformly excellent. The current conflict between the US and Iran lends proceedings a disturbing piquancy. Argo is Affleck's third film as director, after Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Like his producer, a certain George Clooney, he is proving to be a considerably gifted multi-hyphenate filmmaker.