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Oct 18

Truth is stranger than fiction in Ben Affleck’s "Argo"

Ben Affleck stars as CIA agent Tony Mendez in the historical thriller "Argo," based on a true story.

“Argo” gets its white-knuckle thrills from real-life events

Whoever coined the expression “Truth is stranger than fiction” may have had “Argo” in mind.

Director Ben Affleck’s latest film focuses on the joint efforts of the Canadian and United States governments to smuggle six American diplomats out of the country during the height of the Iran hostage crisis.

Their plan, known alternately as the “Canadian Caper” and “The Hollywood Option,” was complex, convoluted and impossibly risky. And, remarkably, it worked.

Our story begins on Nov. 4, 1979, as a mob of angry Iranian students and militants storm the American Embassy in Tehran. Most of the embassy staffers and their Marine security guards are taken hostage, but six diplomats — Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane) and married couples Cora and Mark Lijek (Clea DuVall and Christopher Denham) and Kathy Stafford and Joseph Stafford (Kerry Bishé and Scoot McNairy) — manage to slip out the back door unseen.

The fugitives take shelter in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) and his wife (Page Leong), who risk swift and violent retribution if their house guests are discovered.

Rescue seems inevitable. But three months later, the stir-crazy Americans are still waiting for a way out.

Frustrated by the U.S. State Department’s inane rescue plans — one proposal involves dropping off a few bicycles so the fugitives, disguised as international do-gooders, can pedal to Turkey in the middle of winter — CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) formulates a plan of his own.

He’ll pose as a Canadian movie producer scouting locations for a science fiction film, pass off the American embassy workers as members of his production crew, and fly everyone out of Tehran’s sole commercial airport — right under the Iranian Revolution’s very noses.

First, however, he needs a faux film to back up his cover story.

Mendez and his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), reach out Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who puts them in touch with curmudgeonly producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Together, they set up a phony film studio, purchase a script (from a posturing Richard Kind), craft storyboards and get to work promoting “Argo,” a second-rate space opera that borrows elements from “Flash Gordon” and “Star Wars.”

“If I’m going to do a fake movie,” Siegel declares, “it’s going to be a fake hit.”

It’s all fun and games for a while. Then Mendez goes to Iran, and the mission begins in earnest.

Affleck and first-time screenwriter Chris Terrio keep the tension taut throughout “Argo,” toying with our emotions as Mendez and his charges dart in and out of danger — sometimes unknowingly. When the faux film crew navigates the city’s historical Grand Bazaar, the effect on the audience is white-knuckled terror.

At the same time, “Argo” is a surprisingly enjoyable film, stuffed with crowd-pleasing one-liners, picture-perfect set dressing, and an endless parade of recognizable actors.

Arkin and Goodman have particularly strong chemistry as a couple of wise-cracking Hollywood insiders pressed into service for their country. (Their obscenity-laden exchanges are almost worth the price of admission alone.) Affleck, for his part, nicely underplays his role as a courageous, principled Average Joe who just wants to make it home to his wife and son.

Even the cinematography — done by Rodrigo Prieto of “Babel” and “Brokeback Mountain” fame — is flawless. Watching sections of the film, it’s clear that each documentary-style shot was painstakingly recreated from historical photos and news footage.

Of course, “Argo” doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story behind the Canadian Caper. It focuses mostly on CIA efforts and minimizes the Canadian government’s role in the unlikely rescue mission. Nonetheless, the movie remains an effective, and entertaining, history lesson — drawing indirect parallels between the Iran hostage crisis and our current kerfuffle in the Middle East.

Even if you know how “Argo” ends, you’re sure to learn something.

***

“Argo” image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and MovieWeb.

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