IoS film review: Ben Affleck's thriller Argo skilfully elides suspense and satire

Drama tells the story of the CIA and Hollywood's bizarre joint effort to rescue hostages from 1970s Iran

Ben Affleck's thriller lands on British screens while memories of the latest Bond film are still fresh. The newer film does not suffer by the comparison: the hero of Argo is a real spy, not a fantasy one, possessed of real tradecraft, and he plots an operation so crazy (though closely based on fact) that Skyfall's screenwriters would never have dreamed of proposing it.

In his tweed herringbone jacket, this CIA agent may seem a bit of a softie compared with Bond, and he gets through the film without picking up either a gun or a girl. But Affleck, who directs as well as stars, conjures a denouement every bit as stomach-shredding as Skyfall's.

He drops us into the thick of the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the siege and occupation of the US Embassy that followed – the Iranians want the terminally ill Shah returned for trial from the US, where he has been given asylum. The contemporary history of the Middle East starts here: America's diplomats are grotesquely ill-prepared, mentally and strategically, for the waves of popular rage that crash over the embassy walls, and which lead to all US nationals inside being taken hostage.

Or nearly all: six manage to sneak away, finding shelter in the home of the courageous Canadian ambassador. The challenge for the US is how to quietly "exfiltrate" those six while the larger hostage crisis grinds on, saving the fugitives' skins without blowing hopes of eventually rescuing all the rest.

Can they be rebadged as Tehran-based Canadian English teachers heading home? (Nope, all the real ones have already been evacuated.) How about issuing them with bicycles – the State Department's favoured solution – and directing them to pedal to the Iraqi border, a mere 300 miles away?

Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA exfiltration specialist, has another idea: a fictitious Hollywood production company has sent a team of six – all Canadians – to Tehran to scout locations for a Planet of the Apes-type science-fiction film. Now, tired but happy, they are heading home.

Trying to make an American movie in Iran during the bloodiest, wildest months of the revolution would have been an act of madness – why should anyone think it would make a good cover? As Mendez's boss admits, "This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far." But we know from books such as Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats that wacky ideas can take hold inside America's security establishment, and this plan was actually signed off at the highest levels of the US government.

More to the point, in real life, Mendez and the six fugitives carried the whole thing off to perfection – then kept it under wraps for another 17 years.

As Mendez understands, the only hope of his plan succeeding is to do everything possible to make the film story credible, from finding and storyboarding the script, hiring a producer and opening an office, to putting ads in the Hollywood trade press and staging a script read-through, with the cast in costume, for the press.

A nail-biting hostage drama with victims of the Revolutionary Guards dangling from cranes on street corners thus elides into some of the sharpest satire on Hollywood since Altman's The Player. John Chambers (John Goodman), Mendez's fat, cynical friend in the industry, an Oscar-winning make-up artist, sneers, "You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in." An ancient producer called Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) buys into the idea of crowning his bullshit career by actually doing some good. "If I'm doing a fake movie," he rages when things threaten to get sloppy, "it's going to be a fake hit!"

The film's elements, Hollywood slapstick, Washington power play, and the boredom and fear of the hostages, are wildly incongruous, but Affleck balances them deftly, never letting us forget that real lives hang in the balance. And although the film recreates events 30 years in the past, contemporary resonances are everywhere – louder than the producers could have anticipated. Jimmy Carter became a one-term Democratic president largely thanks to the Iranian hostage crisis; many feared (or hoped) that the murder of America's Libyan ambassador during the recent invasion of the Benghazi consulate would similarly blight Barack Obama's hopes of re-election. The Iranian revolution was the grand-daddy of the Arab Spring, and the original sin that provoked it lay in the insistence of Britain and the US on dictating the course of Iranian politics. The Egyptian uprising against Mubarak had similar causes.

Affleck is alert to these resonances, and his scenes inside the revolution, with children going through baskets of shredded documents trying to jigsaw together the missing diplomats' faces, are as telling as those in downtown Burbank. The revolutionaries themselves, on the other hand, are never more than bug-eyed monsters from Planet Fundamentalism. But a larger political scope was probably out of the question for a film which, in the final analysis, is all about getting our boys and girls home in one piece.

Critic's Choice

As the British Board of Film Classification marks its 100th year, the BFI screens a season of films that point up changing attitudes to censorship. The week’s selection includes the martial arts hit Enter the Dragon (Tue); Barbet Schroeder’s 1975 As the British Board of Film Classification marks its 100th year, the BFI screens a season of films that point up changing attitudes to censorship. The week’s selection includes the martial arts hit Enter the Dragon (Tue); Barbet Schroeder’s 1975 Maîtresse (Fri & Sun); and the director’s cut of Ken Russell’s The Devils (Sat). (Fri & Sun); and the director’s cut of Ken Russell’s The Devils (Sat).

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