Stranger than fiction

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Warner Bros.
In addition to directing Argo, Ben Affleck, center, stars as a CIA operative who arranges a hostage rescue scheme in 1980 Iran that involves an elaborately faked sci-fi film production.

Escape tale made for — and about — Hollywood

The story behind Argo, the engaging new political thriller, is so good that it is almost incomprehensible that it has not already been made into a movie. Maybe it would have if the story of the deft and delicate extraction of six Americans from Iran in 1980 hadn’t been classified until 1997.

In Argo, Ben Affleck directs his third film, showing even more improvement and confidence behind the camera. But he also takes a lead acting role, playing Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who arranges the scheme that one participant calls “the best bad idea we have.”

As the main character, Affleck does not dominate the screen because the sprawling story draws in a wide cast. And Affleck has been an actor long enough to know to fill supporting roles with quality performers, whether with Tate Donovan and Clea DuVall as two of the stranded Americans, or with Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall playing rigid State Department officials.

Chris Terrio wrote the script, based on a Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, and it breaks down almost neatly into two parts. First, while revolutionary Iran erupts in November 1979 and a group of Americans are held hostage in the U.S. Embassy, six other Americans escape to temporary refuge in the house of the Canadian ambassador. Back in Washington, CIA officials go through various extraction options before settling on the most unlikely.

Mendez forms a group to pass as a movie production team preparing to make a science-fiction epic titled Argo. A makeup artist (John Goodman), who delivers a pithy string of one-liners, and a hack director (Alan Arkin) buy a cheesy script from a writer (Richard Kind). Mendez then flies to Tehran in the guise of a producer to arrange for his six captives to try and leave the country posing as a Canadian production team.

While dealing with the possibility of making a film, Affleck gleefully pokes fun at various Hollywood types, and the mood remains light. But once inside Iran, the tone changes, and the director plays it mostly straight, squeezing the drama and tension from a succession of chaotic and harrowing crowd scenes that capture and convey the real fear obviously felt by the captives.

The cinematically tailored situation allows for some overdone sequences, most notably the movie-made mad rush to the airport and its subsequent aftermath of boarding the airplane out of the country.

But this is excusable considering Argo is, after all, a movie, and one made by the same type of people it takes such delight in skewering.



*** 1/2

Rated R, 120 minutes.

Opens Friday.


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