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Cinema: Film of the week – Argo (15)

Fiction couldn’t be any stranger than the truth in Argo, based on real-life events following the 1979 storming of the US Embassy in Tehran.

Ben Affleck is a deserved front-runner for the best director statuette at next year’s Academy Awards for his work on this gripping thriller that keeps us teetering on the edge of our seats for the entire two hours.

The handsome, California-born leading man has been a solid presence on screen for more than 30 years but it’s more recently, behind the camera, that he has truly excelled.

His script for Good Will Hunting, co-written with Matt Damon, won the Oscar and critics have lavished superlatives on his directorial efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town.

Argo restores Affleck to thriller territory, working from a lean script by Chris Terrio, based on an article written by Joshuah Bearman.

On November 4, 1979, simmering tensions outside the US embassy finally boil over.

Militants break through the barricades and storm the building.

“Don’t shoot anybody!” orders one guard, “You don’t want to be the person who started a war!”

Iranians capture 52 Americans and hold them hostage but six members of staff – Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishe), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall) and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane) – manage to escape to the nearby residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). They hide in a basement crawl space while awaiting news from the outside world.

Back on American soil, CIA extractor Tony Mendez (Affleck) concocts an elaborate scheme to rescue the escapees: he will pose as a film producer who has come to Iran to scout for locations for a sci-fi epic called Argo.

The six stranded embassy staff will adopt the guise of his crew and they will leave the country together under false passports.

Bona fide Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) throw their weight behind Argo to give the plan credibility.

When Tony arrives on Iranian soil, he soon realises all of his smooth talking and experience might not be enough to save the embassy staff from an Iranian firing squad.

Argo holds our attention hostage in a vice-like grip and refuses to let go.

Taut pacing, slick editing and escalating tension are underpinned by emotionally wrought performances from a sensational ensemble cast.

Arkin and Goodman provide the comic relief as the Hollywood veterans who realise they must spend serious money to create the illusion of a blockbuster in the making.

“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” growls Lester.

The nail-biting climax succumbs to dramatic licence but by that point we forgive Affleck everything.