ARGO directed by Ben Affleck (USA, 2012)

Ever since Fargo, I take with a pinch of salt any film that opens with the assurance that what we are about to see is “based on a true story”.

Ironically, the Coen brothers’ tale of a hapless husband’s plan to have his own wife kidnapped  looks far more plausible that the events of the so-called Canadian Caper in Argo.

The story surrounds the bizarre plan to free six US embassy staff held as hostages in Iran. The CIA’s “best bad idea”   is to pass them off as Canadian filmmakers looking for movie locations; a scam which necessitates creating a sham Sci-Fi movie project complete with a bogus PR campaign and a fake film studio.

When you learn that all this really happened – well, most of it – the movie becomes much more intriguing. It backs up the old adage/cliché that the truth is stranger than fiction.

Ben Affleck blending in with the locals.

Ben Affleck as director and star recognises that the facts are so remarkable that excess embellishment is not needed. He wisely resists the temptation to opt for high farce or overplay the cruelty and corruption of the Iranian regime.

Inevitably, some changes are made for dramatic effect, for example a high-speed pursuit by police cars near the end never happened and film producer Lester Siegel is a fictional character.

The chase scene is unnecessary but I would support the invention of the cynical Siegel as this role is played with real panache by Alan Arkin. He’s probably the most colorful character in the movie and makes for a great double act with John Goodman as larger than life Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers.

Affleck, in contrast, plays CIA specialist Tony Mendez with studied understatement; only a brief glimpse of his impressive torso reminds us that he’s playing down his sex symbol potential. This fits well with the real Mendez’s assertion that the most effective spies are the boring ones no one notices (eat you heart out 007!).

All this happened in 1980 when communication relied on clunky technology. This is one of the reasons the whole movie has a nice old-fashioned feel and proves that you don’t need elaborate digital effects to create a gripping drama. An intelligent script and engaging plot help do the job just as effectively.