Argo - movie review

"You couldn't make it up!" is one of those empty misnomers that dull people throw around when real life events take a turn for the odd or outlandish. 

In the case of the rescue of six American diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, it's doubtful any phrase has been applied with such a determined lack of originality: stumped as to how to bring the hostages home from their hideout at the Canadian Ambassador's house, a plan was floated by CIA operative Tony Mendez to have the six pose as Canadian filmmakers, on a location scout for a (fake) blockbuster sci-fi film. 

They really did make it up. 

The details of "the Canadian caper", declassified by the Clinton government in 1997, make for a real thrill ride in Ben Affleck's third film as director (he also stars as Mendez).    

After a potted history of Iran's political instability, Argo opens as revolutionaries storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Aware that the crowd will soon breach the building's security, the diplomats fly into a frenzy, shredding documents and incinerating files. In the midst of the chaos, six diplomats - Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, Christopher Denham, Clea DuVall and Rory Cochrane - slip away and take shelter at the house of Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The rest of the Embassy staff are taken hostage. 

Back on home turf, the State Department brings in Mendez as a consultant to try to work out how to safely remove the diplomats from Tehran. Frustrated by suggestions including getting them all to ride bicycles to the border, Mendez has an epiphany while watching Planet Of The Apes on TV, and suggests the "Canadian filmmakers on a location scout" option. 

Despite initial resistance (as Mendez's supervisor Jack O'Donnel, Bryan Cranston, offers, "This is the best bad idea we have, sir"), Mendez contacts his friend, Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), to get the ball rolling. With a director on board - Alan Arkin as the fictional Lester Siegel - a script, Argo ("A Cosmic Conflagration"), and a fake production company set up, the bad idea takes flight. 

Argo, from its '70s Warner Brothers logo to its scenes of intense, cigarette smoke cloaked dialogue and unflashy cinematography, takes after the tight political thrillers of the same vintage as its source material. 

The cast is terrific, and Donovan et al perfectly capture the mix of boredom and terror that the diplomats must have felt at the Ambassador's house, laying low and playing board games in between occasional dashes for a hideout under the floorboards. 

Affleck gives Mendez a bruised, doleful quality, which is wonderfully offset by a strung out Cranston, and Goodman and Arkin's droll tag team.  

As a send up of the vagaries and vanities of Tinseltown, Argo is a real hoot. As a political thriller, it's can take your breath away (more than a few times at my screening, the entire audience exhaled en masse).

There are moments when Affleck goes for Hollywood bells and whistles, however, embellishing some events and inventing others, that could likely have been left out without spoiling the film's momentum or panache. After all, the mere fact that the mad plan was even given the go-ahead to begin with is remarkable enough without inventing car chases for added effect.

They may seem like small quibbles, although such embellishments, it could be argued (and has been, by a number of critics), put Argo on shaky political territory, considering the US' ongoing fractious relationship with Iran. 

But it's important to remember that this Argo is merely "based on a true story". If the events that inspired the film were so mad "you couldn't make it up", in adding to this story about storytelling, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio simply did what Mendez and Chambers did back in 1980: they made it up, too. 

And their own cosmic conflagration turns out to be one of the most enjoyable thrillers in years. 

Argo is in cinemas nationally today.

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