This is one of those stories that were it not true — and in fact a declassified CIA operation — would be totally preposterous.
Accomplished actor/director Ben Affleck is sure to be credited in some way for this amazingly accomplished thriller set around a previously classified CIA mission that was designed to sneak home six American embassy workers who avoided capture by secretly holing up at the residence of the Canadian Ambassador in Tehran.
With no good options to get them out of Tehran during the 444-day Iranian crisis in 1979, the CIA’s Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) hatched a scheme to create a fake movie production in order to pass the six off as filmmakers working on a new science fiction movie scouting locations in the country.
Mendez enlists the help and expertise of Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who in turn puts Mendez in touch with a Hollywood producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).
Together they make a deal to option a script of a Star Wars-style rip-off calledArgo, many of which were floating around Hollywood after the success of the realStar Wars.
They even went to the extreme of announcing the project in a Variety ad and article and holding a publicity read-through to garner attention.
While putting together the film in Hollywood, purchasing the dud script and setting up a production company is played for its comedic edge, the tone shifts effortlessly as the action and tense moments ramp up as the Tehran plan is set in motion.
As the hostage crisis drags on, Tehran officials realise slowly that there may be six hostages unaccounted for and the search begins in earnest to capture them.
Mendez gives each hostage a new identity and role in the fake film crew. After a location scout there is an attempt to leave while the whole country is in lockdown.
Though some dramatic liberties were taken to ramp up the tension, this is a nail-biter of a film that ratchets up the tension and leaves it there until the mission’s final frames.
From the opening to the climax and closing credits, Affleck has crafted a meticulous film that feels more like a documentary, using actual news footage and scenes created from photos from the events.
Stick around for the credits and you will be treated to some amazing footage and a recently-recorded audio interview with former President Jimmy Carter, which explains why the mission had to remain top secret for 16 years until the whole story was finally declassified by President Bill Clinton.
Affleck plays Mendez with just the right amount of authority and has cast his film with a top notch ensemble, including fine turns by Arkin, Goodman and a terrific Bryan Cranston as his CIA superior.
The ensemble playing the six hostages has been chosen for their likenesses to real-life counterparts, as you will see in the credits, but their flawless performances help give the film authenticity and tension.
The production design includes spot-on costume design and excellent cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto.
There is no question this film will feature heavily at awards time in 2013, either garnering Affleck with Best Director or Argo with Best Film.
The movie-within-the-movie is fake but the resulting picture is remarkable.