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In 1979 revolutionary Iran the US Embassy in Tehran was seized by Iranian students taking most of the staff as hostages. Six Americans managed to escape and took refuge at the residence of the Canadian Ambassador. With the world watching and the safety of the survivors becoming more and more at risk CIA man Tony Mendez cooked up an extraordinary plan to sneak the six out of the country, by creating a fake science-fiction film called Argo and passing himself and the six off as movie people on a location scout.

Sometimes the true stories are the most unlikely. Ben Affleck takes the helm both in front and behind the camera in this dramatisation of one of the CIA’s most audacious exfiltration missions and in doing so skyrockets his own reputation. As Mendez he gives an understated performance in a less than glamorous role that eschews the kind of rally-rousing grandeur more commonly associated with this kind of determined American hero. But it is his work as director that makes Argo so involving.

The story begins at the US Embassy in Iran where nervous staff peer out at the growing throng of protesters gathering outside their front gate, feverishly discussing what they should do. The savagery and danger of the situation is palpable and the film opens with a building sense of dread that maintains for almost the entire running time. That is with the exception of the middle act in which Mendez begins to put together his plan by enlisting the help of Oscar-winning makeup designer John Chambers (John Goodman) and fictional director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) wherein the tone takes a remarkably successful change for the comic.

Goodman and Arkin make a brilliant double-act, clearly enjoying their time playing a pair of conspirators engineering a fake movie for which they organise press events and even get the film featured in Variety all in the name of building convincing cover for the rescue. The whole thing plays out like a canny satire of Hollywood and the films boasts more than its fair share of quality zingers. But it’s the final act that will really absorb you as the tale of the six innocent embassy workers and Mendez escaping the lion’s den becomes an exercise in screen tension. There are clearly a few moments of license, a couple of last minute saves inserted into the story for dramatic purposes but these fit well with the stark reality with which the film is presented. This one deserves your attention whatever you think of Affleck not least because Argo might very well change your opinion.

Verdict

An unlikely true story that could hardly be more perfect for the big screen.

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