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Argo

Year: 2012
Production Co: GK Films
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Ben Affleck
Producer: Ben Affleck/Grant Heslov/George Clooney
Writer: Chris Terrio
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton, Taylor Schilling

After Gone Baby Gone and The Town, the last thing you expect in a film from the New Ben Affleck is laughter, but the Hollywood scenes with John Goodman and Alan Arkin, while nevertheless funny, feel like they've been airdropped in from a much weightier political thriller.

When Arkin – as sharp but grumpy movie producer Lester Siegel – says he'd rather stay home and count the wrinkles on his dog's balls than accept a lifetime achievement award at some ceremony you'll laugh out loud, then catch yourself and say 'am I still in the movie about the Tehran hostage crisis?'

The fact that Affleck plays up the comedy in those sequences isn't exactly a misstep. It's certainly fitting, trading on the cynically beloved cultural view of Hollywood being a town full of shysters with no talent who hate each other. It's just a tonal 180 from the rest of the movie.

That's the only possible criticism in what's otherwise a very tense and effective thriller. The tension slowly rises throughout until the climax when – even as you know you're being manipulated – a series of ever-more implausible nick-of-time moments ensue that don't end until the plane's off the ground.

Like many films about the Second World War, Argo zeroes in on one small story within the greater melee of the hostage crisis. It's 1979 and when the bile-breathing Ayatollah Khomeini takes over Iran, it's a bad time and place to be American. When an angry mob storms the US embassy and takes the staff prisoner, a small group steals away through a nondescript entrance and sneaks off into the city, knowing they've got huge targets painted on their backs if their identities are discovered.

They find their way to the Canadian Ambassador's house but there's no possible way to leave Iran with the airports and roads locked down thanks to the Ayotollah's fearsome, twitchy Republican guards.

It's up to the CIA to get them out, and the clock is ticking. The Iranian army knows some embassy staff got away, and they have a warehouse full of kids putting the shredded records back together to identify the missing while they sweat it out at the Canadian ambassador's residence.

Meanwhile, in Washington, specialist extractor Tony Mendez (Affleck in a very shaggy 70s do) has the craziest idea of them all. He convinces the higher ups to let him spread the news about a forthcoming Hollywood movie, complete with all the hallmarks of a cast read through, make-up and costumes, launch parties and stories in the trade press.

He recruits prickly producer Siegel and Planet of the Apes make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) into his cause, and among all the Hollywood buzz, only the three of them know the truth. More than slightly reminiscent of Wag the Dog, the science fiction adventure film Argo is completely fake, a cover for Mendez to fly to Iran, issue fake credentials to the six hideaways and sneak them out of the country posing as a film crew scouting Middle East locations.

The only weak link is the embassy staff themselves, terrified for their lives, going stir crazy locked in a house and asked to get to know and memorise fake cover stories in great detail in only a matter of days.

It's about the only film you'll ever see with Hollywood and a federal spy agency working together (the two tend to mistrust and pillory each other at any opportunity), but the strangest thing about Argo is that it's true. Despite the sense of incredulity, John Chambers really did use his expertise to help the CIA and received a medal for doing so.

Cinematically, Affleck again cements his strength behind the camera. While Argo isn't as strongly dramatic or subtle as Gone Baby Gone it's more of a rip-roaring roller coaster ride of emotional ups and downs, and you'll laugh as much as you'll grip the armrests and squirm.

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