Last updated 14:00 26/10/2012
Argo film

PERFECT STRANGER: Ben Affleck does more than just rock a 1970s beard in Argo, an account of an uncanny CIA operation during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis picture. He has made one of the most engaging pictures of 2012.

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There are only a couple of things stranger than the 1979 'Canadian Caper' rescue mission of American diplomats in Iran.

REVIEW: One is that it has taken 15 years since the CIA's involvement was declassified for a movie to be made about the movie that never was, and another is that Ben Affleck would prove to be the perfect film-maker to do it.

On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage and demanding the return of former monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - granted temporary exile in the United States - to face trial and execution.

But there should have been 58 American hostages - six had fled through a secret exit and found refuge in the residence of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and his wife, who risked their own lives hiding them for 79 days.

CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, here played by Affleck, had the ''best of the bad ideas'' to get them out - provide them with fake Canadian passports and an elaborate cover. They were to be a film-crew scouting exotic locations for a science-fiction movie named 'Argo', a cash-in on the Star Wars phenomenon.

One of the greatest challenges Affleck faced was juxtaposing the intense scenes of the Iranian hostage crisis with the more flamboyant elements of the caper.

Mendez cruises Hollywood with make-up expert John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), forming the bones of their back-story, and even rubs shoulders with blue Chewbaccas and robots at a fake production party.

But the dark and the light of the story are blended astutely, making for a compelling and hugely entertaining history lesson - and one that doesn't overlook the role the United States played in fuelling Iran's anger towards the West.

What's more, Argo doesn't just look like it's set in the 1970s, it feels like it was made in the 1970s, when film-makers such as Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and John Schlesinger spoiled audiences with intelligent, innovative pictures, full of grit and great dialogue.

Argo meets that standard. Yet it also casts an eye to those other 1970s film-makers, the brash, bold sky-gazers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Mendez' escape plan comes from his son's obsession with science-fiction movies, and one gets the impression Affleck, born in 1972, was - and likely still is - a card-carrying member of the Star Wars generation.

Movie-goers of a similar age will likely find a shot that pans across the boy's room, cluttered with vibrant movie posters and action figures, as affecting as any close-up of the anguished diplomats, who must put their lives in the hands of Mendez and their hope in his crazy ruse.

I'm pretty sure a scene in which one of the 'film crew' acts out Argo's story for suspicious Iranian soldiers at the airport is a direct reference to C-3PO relaying his adventures to Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Regardless of whether this was so, Argo still achieves a remarkable feat in being both a detailed, white-knuckle walk through history and a celebration of American dreaming.

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If Affleck's previous two films - rock-solid crime dramas Gone Baby Gone and The Town - took him from Pearl Harbour punchline to respected director, Argo has pushed him to auteur status.

It is a front-runner for movie of the year and essential viewing for anyone with Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon or All the Presidents' Men in their DVD collection.

- Kapiti Observer


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