A CIA 'exfiltration' expert concocts an outlandish scheme to free six Americans stranded in Tehran after the 1979 invasion of the American embassy — by having them masquerade as a Hollywood film crew.

Iran Hostage Crisis as Hollywood pot-boiler.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Much like his last directing effort, The Town, Ben Affleck’s Argo opens with a fury of activity. Although Argo’s high stakes political drama is based on actual events (detailed in a 2007 Wired article), the film that follows the opening retains much of the Hollywood slickness and punchy energy that made The Town a success. The result is somewhat disorienting: an undeniably fun watch inlaid with a tricky grasp of geopolitics and some pretty major tonal wobbles.

An undeniably fun watch inlaid with a tricky grasp of geopolitics and some pretty major tonal wobbles.

Like Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming retelling of the events that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Argo puts an action thriller gloss on history, specifically the United States’ fraught relations with the Middle East. Here the story of how a CIA agent named Tony Mendez (Affleck, maybe going for 'solemn’ but mostly looking hug-deprived) rescued six American diplomats hiding out in Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis that began in late 1979, gets tricked out with all the tick-tock suspense and taglines of a Bruce Willis escape procedural.

There’s a neat, now-it-can-be-told angle to this story: Kept secret at the time and reported in the press as a strictly Canadian operation, the details of the mission were only declassified by the CIA in 1997. Working from a script by Chris Terrio, Affleck divides the story between its major bases: Tehran, where six diplomats pass the weeks confined to the residence of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber); Washington DC, where CIA agents (including a shirt-sleeved Bryan Cranston and Chris Messina) attempt to settle on an 'exfiltration" plan; and Hollywood, where a couple of showbiz insiders (wonderfully played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin) agree to Mendez’s brainwave to make a fake movie production the impetus for the diplomats’ escape.

Affleck surrounds the story with period detail, from the use of archival news footage to deliver much of the context to the striking fidelity of the casting (as highlighted in side-by-side comparisons that roll with the credits), which includes Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, and Rory Cochrane as the frightened but rather pampered foreign-service captives. At the same time he builds plenty of crackle and a few screwball beats into the pace, and in the first half especially (after that chaotic opening, which depicts the student raid of Tehran’s American Embassy that began the 444-day hostage crisis) plays it light: lines comparing Hollywood’s Writer’s Guild to the Ayatollah and schooling Americans adopting Canadian identities on how to pronounce Toronto (Tur-anno) went over big with the TIFF crowd.

It’s the stuff in between the carbon copied production design and self-reflexive one liners about how even a rhesus monkey could direct a movie that comes across with a less little confidence, or maybe coherence. A sequence inter-cutting a surreal Hollywood table read of the script (Mendez settles on an exotic sci-fi movie called Argo as the cover; the diplomats are to be disguised as Canadian crew members on a location scout), Jimmy Carter pleading for resolution on TV, Iranians screaming 'death to America" while parading blindfolded hostages in the streets, and our captives looking worried in between sips of scotch is the first sign that all of the elements in play in this outlandish true story might overwhelm the movie at hand.

It doesn’t come to that, but Argo’s early, more interesting, multi-layered—almost satirical—energy seems to give way to the more mechanised churning of a good nail-biter with some regret. (If anything the story winds up feeling a little restricted by its Good vs. Evil parameters.) If the Wired account is comprehensive, Argo adds plenty of sugar to the story—including a last-minute abort order from the White House and a trap involving Iran’s culture minister—just as Arkin’s foul-mouthed producer might insist it should.

The staging of the actual airport getaway is flawless and thrilling; in recreating it Affleck is blunt in depicting the hatred fueling the hunt for remaining Americans on Iranian soil. That bluntless has been part of his great and surprising strength as a director: Affleck has an obvious love of the well-rounded entertainment and the too-rare ability to actually pull one off. In fully realising it, the fleet but somewhat fleeting Argo dazzles even as it brings the limitations of a sensibility into view. If it left me longing for a little more melody, it’s only because Argo’s orchestration suggested a talent that could play anything, if he wanted to.

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2 hours
In Cinemas 25 October 2012,