Good replacement for fake film

DRAMATIC RECREATIONS: Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in the dramatic thriller Argo.
DRAMATIC RECREATIONS: Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in the dramatic thriller Argo.


Directed by Ben Affleck
120 mins

Would you believe that a fake science-fiction movie, "funded" by the CIA, helped save the lives of six American diplomats in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis? It's the sort of preposterous premise that stretches credulity to the extent that it has to be true.

Ben Affleck's Argo recreates the moment, and it would be a comedy if it weren't so deadly serious.

The film opens with a political backgrounder which effectively sheets the political upheaval of 1979 back to the early 1950s, when the United States and British governments helped orchestrate a military coup in 1953 toppling Iranian Prime Minister Mossedegh and reinstating the Shah. Cut to 1979, and the people's revolt that led to the exile of the Shah, and the ascension of the long exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. It's a powerful prologue, not least because Affleck adeptly mixes dramatic recreations with actual archive footage.

Affleck plays Antonio J Mendez, the CIA agent who assembles the team to get the six diplomats hiding in the Canadian embassy in Iran, with the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), the chief who "green-lights" the scheme. They will scout "locations" in Iran, and transport the six home.

It's a film with a wide ensemble cast, but it's surprising how similar many of the actors look like their "real life counterparts". True, very few get to shine beyond a couple of scenes- but all contribute. Arkin has a particularly good aside in sardonic humour, while the Hollywood sequences suggest that the movie business is just as incomprehensible as international espionage.

Affleck's direction is all forward movement, but he balances the premise's contradictions expertly. His cross-cutting is particularly adept. One sequence cuts between a press conference for the preposterous science-fiction film and the hostage-takers talking to international media. He also creates tension out of the smallest moments. In this film, crossing a checkpoint or stamping passports feel as explosive as actual gunfire.

Yet there's so much that needs to be covered in this film that you wonder whether it could have been longer: Footage of the 1980 US presidential campaign flickers in the background, while we also see snippets of the notorious 60 Minutes interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Viewers could well feel overwhelmed by the end.

Yet Argo is so forceful that you can't help but go with it. The original movie was never meant to be made, but this taut entertainment is a fitting replacement.

The Timaru Herald