The old saw "truth is stranger than fiction" has had its teeth properly sharpened in the superb thriller Argo, a blend of political history and Hollywood hijinks that goes right for the jugular. Ben Affleck, its director and star, has hold of a real-life story whose telling has been long delayed, mainly because its information was classified, though perhaps also because nobody in their right mind would believe a word of it. Affleck and his screenwriter, debutant Chris Terrio, lay it out with the wit and confidence of film-makers who know they're on to a good thing.
The film spirits us back to the American hostage crisis in Iran, just after the Shah was deposed and the Ayatollah returned to power. It's November 1979, and a mob is howling outside the gates of the American Embassy in Tehran. When they break through and storm the building, 52 Americans are taken hostage, but amid the chaos six manage to escape and find refuge in the house of the Canadian ambassador. Ten weeks later, with the Iranian intelligence services closing in on the fugitives, the CIA are still floating desperate schemes to rescue them, including a 300-mile schlep across the border to Turkey – by bicycle.
Enter hostage-extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), who concocts a desperate, yet ingenious scheme of his own while watching a Planet of the Apes movie on TV. The six "houseguests" will get out of Iran posing as a Canadian film crew on a location scout. All they need is a film to pretend to be scouting for.
This is where Mendez's inventive genius comes in. He contacts a make-up whizz, John Chambers (John Goodman), who in turn recruits old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to put together a plausible front for a film that's never going to be made. They pick the script of a Star Wars knock-off called Argo, set up a fake production company, draw the storyboards and plant a news item about it in Variety. A film journalist asks Siegel whether it's "Argo" as in the mythical ship of Jason and his Argonauts. "No," the producer replies, "it's as in 'Argo fuck yourself.'" The phrase becomes the dissemblers' code. Meanwhile, Mendez packs his suitcase with Canadian passports and a file of backstories for each hostage, departmental doubts ringing in his ears: it's a bad idea, probably, but "This is the best bad idea we have, by far."
Affleck, whose previous directorial outings were the Boston-set thrillers Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), is as savvy as ever in his casting. Bryan Cranston, the magnificent centre of TV's Breaking Bad, brings a wry authority to the role of Mendez's boss, while the trapped hostages, more or less unfamiliar faces, emanate vibrations of deep anxiety. (Scoot McNairy, from Monsters, is the most recognisable). The period looks right, too, a predigital world of telexes, clunky phones and in-flight cigarettes.
Affleck himself, with a helmet of thick dark hair and beard, looks to have escaped from the pages of The Joy of Sex. What's new in his work is a sidelong sense of humour, both of the political sort ("Carter's shitting enough bricks to build the pyramids") and the showbiz sort. In the latter department, Goodman and Arkin offer a wondrous double act of seen-it-all cynicism, firing off one-liners like memos. When Mendez presents his scam for the first time, Goodman drawls, "So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in."
The tension, enhanced by Rodrigo Prieto's moody lighting, builds through the film very persuasively. Downtown Tehran looks like a circle of hell with its baying crowds and hanged bodies swaying on the end of construction cranes. The story keeps us up to speed with the investigative work of the Iranians, some of them mere children, piecing together shredded documents and photo-fits that will identify – aagh! – the missing six. (Shades here of Kevin Costner's face being agonisingly reconstituted by a computer in No Way Out.)
The real-life Argo mission, as Mendez tells it in his book, was fraught with risk yet actually proceeded without a hitch. The film, of course, won't let us off that easily, and soon begins crosscutting between the CIA backroom boys, the suspicious Iranians and the increasingly frazzled hostages, whose negotiation of airport security will have you biting what's left of your nails to the quick. It's a nice touch here that the most sceptical one of the six will prove to be the most capable when required to blag through the official cordon of doubters. Thank goodness for those mocked-up storyboards, too. As bribery material they prove their weight in gold (and probably cost a fortune on eBay now).
Argo is fabulous, but not flawless. Affleck ties on a long ribbon of coda, including a celebration of Anglo-Canadian amity, an aw-shucks hooray for Hollywood, and a reconciliation scene for Mendez and his estranged wife, with a glimpse of the stars-and-stripes fluttering across the doorway. He doesn't want to ring down the curtain, and after a thrill-ride like that you can't really blame him – so we also get a postscript and the now-obligatory photographs of the real-life Americans who hoodwinked the Iranians back then.
Their screen counterparts look a lot like them. The only surprise is that nobody has bothered to dust off the original script of Argo and make the thing. As a piece of trash sci-fi it couldn't be much worse than Battlefield Earth – or Star Wars itself, come to that.