A delicious blend of comedy, Hollywood satire and adrenaline pumping thrills, Argo arrived at the recent Toronto International Film Festival with hefty buzz and was soon pronounced a front-runner for a handful of major Oscar nominations.
The film has had a wide release and is expected to be a box office champ.
It is a political thriller and will resonate well with American audiences, but even as a pure thriller, the film will have a wide appeal across the globe.
The film is about the escape of American hostages from Iran in the 1970s. When young militants took over the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, six US staff members escaped and found refuge in the Canadian Embassy. Ken Taylor, then Canada's ambassador to Iran, hid them as 'house guests' for three months, then helped smuggle them out of the country.
Two decades later, declassified CIA files showed that Taylor had worked closely with the CIA to create a front -- a Canadian movie unit shooting in Iran -- which was in fact a CIA operation that got the hostages out.
The murmur that an essentially Canadian story of bravery and high principles gives too much credit to the American part of the rescue saga may not worry many who will be riveted by the film's intriguing twists, fine performances, and tense moments including a cliffhanger of a climax.
"Because we say it is based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we are allowed to take some dramatic license. There's a spirit of truth," Ben Affleck, who acts and directs the film, said at the TIFF press conference.
As for the imagined but riveting airport climax, screenwriter Chris Terrio said, "There is a catharsis when the plane takes off. To create that in cinematic form requires a lot of amp-up and drama to replicate what the house guests might have felt at that moment."
Despite the buzz among the reviewers, Affleck was a bit nervous about how the film would be received by the critics. He said in Toronto, "Movies show up, something might be good that people didn't expect, and it breaks out, so there is the possibility of surprise."
He said people like to go to the movies, they are psyched, "it's not a festival where just agents and the connected get in and the cynical press doesn't dominate the audience."
The press was excited but that did not stop many from debating the film's veracity at many points and its elaborately staged climax.
The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, pointed out for instance that while Argo got a standing ovation at the audience screening, there was one small detail the actor/director overlooked. The Canadian actor Victor Garber, who portrays Ken Taylor, 'played Taylor as he looks today -- even though at the time of the Iran crisis, Taylor was a dark-haired 40-something.'
Ben Affleck, who has directed two other hit films, The Town and Gone Baby Gone, creates many tense situations in the new film which has a far bigger canvass and scope than his previous work.
Watch out for the sequence in which Iranians spend sleepless nights putting together shredded documents to get the pictures of escaped officials.
The scene in which the American escapees, who are pretending to be Canadians, are in a busy market place where they inadvertently provoke mob fury, is another gut-tightening scene in the film, made scarier by close-up shots.
The claustrophobic atmosphere in the hideout, the rising tension among the refugees and their suspicion of the CIA mounted operation give the film an edge, and the grainy visuals enhance the impact.
Affleck stars in the new film as CIA officer Tony Mendez who worked with Hollywood to concoct the sci-fi movie about space aliens.
With the help of a wise-cracking producer (the ever charming and vitriolic Alan Arkin) and a veteran makeup artist John Chambers (a terrific John Goodman), Mendez creates the cover of the film unit, complete with poster, script, storyboards and a production office.
To make the cover story look real, Mendez and Chambers also create a fake movie and production company and print business cards, hold a party at a Los Angeles nightclub and take out ads in the trade publications, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
They select the script of a cancelled film that required an Iran-like location. Chambers suggests they call the film Argo, after the mythical ship captained by the Greek hero Jason during his daring quest to obtain the Golden Fleece.
While much of the first half is comedic, it segues into a suspenseful thriller in the second half.
Some of the Hollywood in-jokes may be lost on many viewers but there is plenty here that makes you laugh your guts out as the fake movie scenario provides fodder for many great one liners.
"You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without doing anything?" says Arkin's character. "You'll fit right in."
His character is not worried about duplicity and lies: "If I'm doing a fake movie," he pronounces deadpan, "it's going to be a hit."