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Ben Affleck's Argo is all garnish and no meat

Argo - review.

Argo (15)
dir: Ben Affleck

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. And sometimes it isn’t, and it must be bent and twisted out of shape until any authenticity becomes purely theoretical. Ben Affleck’s film Argo is set during the Iranian hostage crisis, which began in November 1979 when the US embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters. Six employees stole away unnoticed in the chaos, finding a safe haven at the residence of the Canadian ambassador. The US and Canadian authorities were then faced with the daunting task of springing them from Iran. That mission provides the meat of Argo, though “meat” is the wrong noun for a film that is approximately 75 per cent garnish.

In his third outing as director, Affleck sticks to the thriller genre after the morally complex Gone Baby Gone and its more conventional follow-up, The Town. He also takes the lead role, donning regulation 1970s shag-cut and facial hair to play Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who masterminded the rescue operation. When we first meet him, Tony is sprawled on a bed in his suit, surrounded by beer cans. Along with Tony’s estrangement from his wife and young son, this is Hollywood shorthand for “character ripe for redemption”. If it sounds unsporting to be so flippant about a real person’s woes, fear not: the film-makers dreamed up Mendez’s domestic turmoil, so we can mock all we like.

Mockery within the confines of the film itself would have made Argo a less gauche entertainment. It has at its core an indisputably delicious nugget of truth: Mendez really did decide to smuggle out the Americans under cover of a location-scouting expedition for a sci-fi film. Tony turns to the Hollywood make-up expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and a grizzled producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to concoct a project to provide a plausible cover. After sifting through a dubious slush-pile, like Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder searching for a flop in The Producers, they settle on a story about an uprising on a distant planet named Argo. Ads announcing the film’s production are placed in the trade papers, a bogus office established, a table reading convened. All that remains is for Tony to fly out to Iran and whisk the escapees home to safety. Simple, right?

Yes, actually. Once the groundwork had been laid, the operation turned out to be, in the words of the real Mendez, “smooth as silk”. The perceived lunacy and arrogance of the movie industry worked in the ruse’s favour: only a Hollywood outfit would have the insensitivity to swoop into Iran for a recce during this moment of international tension.

It would be deluded to object to reality being pumped full of steroids during the adaptation process. Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che has very particular strengths but its dust-dry, justthe- facts approach doesn’t suit everything. The structure of Warren Beatty’s Reds, where dramatised reconstructions are punctuated by documentary interviews, is a bold one rarely repeated. The default model for historical filmmaking tends to be Oliver Stone’s JFK, which uses factual details as a battering ram: once the door of our scepticism has been broken down, all manner of fantasises run riot on screen.

Where Argo comes a cropper is in the nature of its fabrications. There’s no nice way of putting this: each element that makes the film an enjoyable distraction undermines the veracity of which it boasts. Ending with a compare-and contrast montage showing how closely the actors resemble the figures they are playing is no compensation for having hoodwinked the audience for the preceding 100 minutes. A cleverer film would have incorporated an admission of its own trickery, a reference to the need to import superficially thrilling ingredients. Unfortunately, that film has already been made – it’s called Adaptation, and it details the mounting compromises that can creep into a project with good intentions (like Argo).

The final half-hour is suspenseful, damppalm stuff. But if you have to manufacture that much material to make a story fly, perhaps it’s time to stop piggybacking on a real-life crisis and to ask whether there was enough here for a Hollywood movie in the first place.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.