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Thursday, July 10, 2014

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Political thriller Argo delivers the goods

Tags: Arts
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Ben Affleck plays a CIA agent in Argo, set during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Ben Affleck’s taut political thriller, Argo, which opens in Toronto on Oct. 12, takes a viewer on a scintillating ride.

Inspired by the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, it is being released at a most propitious time, when the United States and Iran are at loggerheads over Iran’s nuclear program and when U.S. diplomats in the Middle East are under deadly attack by Islamic radicals.

Argo, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, imparts an aura of anxiety and dread from the outset as an enraged mob shouts anti-American slogans in front of the besieged U.S. embassy in Tehran.

With anger boiling over, a wave of Iranians storms the building. Inside, diplomats are busy burning top-secret documents. As the tension mounts, six diplomats evade capture by escaping and finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence.

At this juncture, Argo pivots to U.S. Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., where an audacious plan is being hatched to spirit the six Americans out of Iran, right past the unsuspecting noses of scowling Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The plot is based on a book written by Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who masterminded the plan.

The scheme is quite clever. The Americans will be smuggled out of Iran as members of a Canadian crew scouting locations in Tehran for a science fiction movie to be shot at a later date.

Mendez sets up a fake production company in Los Angeles and enlists the services of two cynical Hollywood veterans, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman), to lend his caper a legitimate sheen.

In his quest for unassailable authenticity, Mendez, played to perfection by Affleck, thinks of every conceivable angle. He commissions a script, as well as artwork, and invites journalists to a press conference to generate publicity about the forthcoming movie.

Nonetheless, the hired hands are skeptical. Siegel, a stereotypical Hollywood type portrayed by Arkin in his usual droll style, dismisses the plan as suicidal, while Chambers calls it a “Star Wars ripoff.”

Meanwhile, Mendez’s superiors also voice doubt about his out-of-the-box project. With effortless self-confidence, he counters by saying that it’s “the best bad idea.”

As Affleck has admitted, the script gives Mendez far too much credit for the escapade, while minimizing the integral role that the resourceful Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), played in getting the Americans out of Iran.

Still, Argo ensnares viewers with its realistic and suspenseful action scenes, shot in Istanbul and California, and its well-chosen cast of performers. The Iranian actors who depict edgy Iranian government functionaries are especially believable.

To its credit, Argo pokes self-deprecating fun at skin-deep Hollywood values and mores, leaving viewers with the distinct and unmistakable impression that honest, straightforward people are hard to find in the movie industry.

Argo, however, descends to a certain level of implausibility as it reaches its nail-biting climax in Tehran airport. But this subtle faux pas is merely a minor distraction or annoyance in a film that basically delivers the goods.

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