Argo is based on a true story. It starts with a political history of Iran from 1950 up to the Islamic revolution of 1979; the closing credits contain scenes from the movie next to photos of the people they depict. What comes between them is utterly phoney.

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Granted the true story it is telling is a preposterous one.

During the attack on the American embassy by Iranian students in 1979, six members of staff snuck away and hid out at the Canadian embassy. They avoid being taken hostage but, after more than two months in hiding, it was clear that they need to be rescued. The CIA drew a blank until “exfiltration” specialist Affleck suggests a hare-brained scheme to get them out under the guise of being a group of Hollywood film-makers scouting locations for a sci-fi movie called Argo. To make the cover convincing they even have a Hollywood office run by John Chambers (John Goodman), the man who did the make-up for the original Planet of the Apes movies.

It’s quite a story and Affleck’s third movie as director is a slick and effective crowd-pleaser that moves smoothly through the gears. On one level it’s a men-in-rooms drama in which doughty faces like Bryan Cranston, Philip Baker Hall and Bob Gunston bark tersely at each other under artificial light. Then there’s the comic relief provided by Goodman and Alan Arkin as cynical Hollywood old-timers before the gripping-the-edge-of-your-seat tension of the mission.

It is an amazing story but the telling of it is entirely bogus. You can accept simplification and a little exaggeration for dramatic effect in a film of a true story but in Argo every situation is hyped up into an at-the-last-minute, skin-of-their-teeth escapade. Even before the post- viewing Wikipedia consultation, you know you’re being jerked around. It’s a bit insulting that the film doesn’t trust you enough to enjoy this story without these embellishments; a little humiliating that despite this you are still entirely gripped by its manipulations.

Affleck may be sporting a Chuck Norris-style beard but his film is like a liberal Rambo, a shifty mix of hand-wringing angst and patriotic retribution.

It is at pains to admit that anti-American sentiment doesn’t come out of a vacuum yet its appeal is to show that a single American can still outsmart a whole nation of excitable foreign types. It also commits that standard Hollywood slight of assigning all the glory to the US; previous to Argo this story was known as the Canadian Caper.

ARGO (15)

Director: Ben Affleck

Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Scoot McNairy and Tate Donovan

Length: 120 mins

***

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