If a revolution engulfed Iran and there were six US diplomats left behind, hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador, the CIA would table a number of options for their rescue, ranging from a diplomatic solution to a special forces-led ‘exfiltration’. Or you could follow the Agency’s own example, and pretend the stranded diplomats were part of the crew of a fake Canadian sci-fi movie, scouting locations in Iran’s capital, Tehran. It was an idea so crazy, the CIA higher-ups must have thought in November 1979, it might just work. Incredibly, it did – not exactly as it unfolds in producer-director-star Ben Affleck’s enormously entertaining thriller based on ‘the Canadian caper’, but close enough as to make questioning the film’s authenticity akin to lambasting All the President’s Men because Redford and Hoffman are better looking than Woodward and Bernstein.
Speaking of which, Argo’s use of a late-seventies Warner Bros logo isn’t merely because the film is set in 1979, with all the voluminous beards, flyaway collars, brown suits the period implies. It’s also because the film has a pervasive feel of one of Pakula, Pollack or Lumet’s low-key thrillers from the era, with underplayed tension. Affleck, who made a striking directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, and cemented his reputation with The Town, has assembled a terrific supporting cast – including Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and an uncredited Philip Baker Hall, and Affleck himself nicely underplays the lead role of CIA spook Antonio J. Mendez, on whose (possibly unreliable) memoir the film is partly based. Argo may not adhere strictly to the facts, but the character played by Alan Arkin (whose Best Supporting Actor nod was one of the film’s seven nominations, including its big win, for Best Picture) has a handy phrase for anyone who thinks the film is tainted by its use of artistic license: “Argo fuck yourself!” ★★★★