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Affleck's take on 1979's 'Canadian Caper' in Iran delivers suspense well-done while manipulating the facts

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Ben Affleck doesn't let facts get in the way of a good story with his film Argo.

Affleck's tightly directed and entertaining suspense movie, scripted by Chris Terrio, is a Hollywood take on the so-called "Canadian Caper," in which six American escapees from the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran took refuge in the Canadian consulate under the care of ambassador Ken Taylor (dutifully played here by Canadian actor Victor Garber).

Taylor and his wife risked their lives, not to mention Canada's diplomatic standing, in hiding the six Americans. Taylor personally secured their airplane tickets out of Tehran months after the embassy was overrun by militant students.

What remained to be handled was a cover story.

That cover story gets boosted front and centre in Argo, which focuses on Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), a heroic CIA agent skilled in the art of extraction -- getting people out of hostile environments. While watching a Planet of the Apes movie with his young son, Mendez hit on the idea of producing a fake science-fiction movie that might justify the presence of six Canadians touring Tehran on a location scout.

Mendez consults with Oscar-winning Hollywood makeup man John Chambers of, yep, Planet of the Apes (John Goodman) to concoct a whole movie project, based on a particularly hackneyed sci-fi script titled Argo. Collaborating with a seasoned Hollywood producer (a hilarious role for the great Alan Arkin), Mendez gets the ball rolling on the film, inviting press to a public read-through of the script, getting ads in the trade papers and even designing storyboards.

It is one thing to show suspicious customs officials fake passports. It is quite another to be able to show them a write-up of your movie project in Variety.

For a film that takes pains to give credit to the CIA for its role in helping free the fugitives, Argo is surprisingly honest about how the U.S. got in that position in the first place. America helped undermine a legitimately elected prime minister to install the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran, who protected U.S. and British oil interests and tortured and killed any Iranians who opposed his policies. Admittedly, the film's expositional prelude renders this back story in comic-book-like storyboards, which does feel like an attempt to soften the self-flagellating incrimination.

But as long as you remember that "based on a true story" is not the same things as "a true story," Argo is a fun ride. It allows Affleck to poke fun at Hollywood: "You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without doing anything?" Chambers asks Mendez. "You'll fit right in."

But with its expert pacing, its fine performances, and excellent production values, Argo is also a movie that uses every Hollywood trick in the book to achieve its desired suspense.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Other voices

"Argo, the real movie about the fake movie, is both spellbinding and surprisingly funny."

-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

 

"Undeniably rousing, but deeply irresponsible, Argo fans the flames surrounding historical events likely to still remain raw in the memory of many viewers."

-- Andrew Schenker, Slant Magazine

 

"Argo is a triumph. It has tension, sincerity, mystery, artistic responsibility, entertainment value, technical expertise, a narrative arc and a thrilling respect for the tradition of how to tell a story with minimum frills and maximum impact."

-- Rex Reed, New York Observer

 

"Argo is a solid but very ordinary film with patriotic and inspirational elements -- which is to say that, yes, the Academy should probably save Affleck an aisle seat next Feb. 24."

-- Richard Corliss, Time magazine

 

"Argo is never less than wildly entertaining, but a major part of its power is that it so ominously captures the kickoff to the world we're in now."

-- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2012 D1

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