ArgoI realise I’m coming to Argo about six months and a wallop of Academy Awards nominations later, but how good is that film?!

My penchant is for non-fiction tales, so I’m particularly partial to films based on truth-is-stranger-than-fiction events.

And there are few tales that could be any stranger than the one involving a fictional sci-fi film created as a cover to retrieve six American embassy workers holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s home after Iranians stormed the American embassy and took hostage all but these six escaped workers.

The riots stemmed from America granting immunity to the Iranian leader and all-round bad guy, and the glossing over of America’s role in inciting the overspill of violence and the casting of the Iranian people as rather two-dimensional are the two criticisms I’ll make of Argo. But for the most part I’m applauding it as a film that stayed fairly close to historical fact, allowing for a little injecting of creative licence to ramp up the storytelling tension.

Riveting from the get go, Argo credits audience intelligence. It tightly weaves a historical and plot tapestry, assuming and expecting that we will pay close attention and will keep up. Archival-style footage wrought as graphic novel-like tableaus break up and highlight the opening protest and embassy-barraging scenes. Everything is understated but highly strung and it’s impossible not to be affected by that unrelenting, pulse-raising tension for the entire film.

Ben Affleck plays protagonist and CIA agent Tony Mendez, whose specialities include forging passports and extracting people from fraught situations. He’s the one tasked with finding a life- and face-saving solution to smuggling out the six highly prized (but for now secret) targets when every option presented is poor.

It’s winter in Iran and it’s hundreds of kilometres to the border—the six can’t, as is first suggested, cycle. Snow covering the ground ensures that they can’t pretend to be agricultural inspectors; meanwhile the mere 74 foreign journalist visas issued are closely monitored.

It’s watching Planet of the Apes with his son that gives Mendez the idea that he and the six American escapees will pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting for a location for a fake sci-fi film entitled Argo. As his superior says of the preposterous idea: ‘This is the best bad idea we have.’

In truth, with Affleck as protagonist and director, I’d almost steered clear of Argo. With the exception of Good Will Hunting, I’ve found Affleck’s films to be forgettable. But, as my friend Naomi commented, he seems to do his best work when he’s juggling both acting and directorial roles, and with Argo he’s made a return to that early (only?) form.

John Goodman plays larger-than-life prosthetics expert (I’ve most recently enjoyed him as Denzel Washington’s character’s drug dealer in Flight) and Alan Arkin plays a film industry great with just the right amount of cynicism and sass. His character’s bestowed a lifetime achievement award. Of the penguin suit-requiring ceremony he says, ‘I’d rather stay at home and count the wrinkles on my dog’s balls.’

‘I should have brought some books to read in prison,’ is what Mendez says to his colleague just before embarking on the mission. ‘No, they’ll kill you long before prison,’ his colleague blackly comically replies. Fortunately for us audiences (and for Affleck’s career), Mendez survived. His book, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which has rocketed to the bestseller list thanks to the film’s success, will be the next on my reading menu. For book-to-film-adaptation examination, of course.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.