Hollywood has long had a symbiotic relationship with Washington, from the days when The Rat Pack were treated like visiting heads of state by the Kennedy White House and the presidency of Bedtime for Bonzo star Ronald Reagan, through to the video-game industry developing battle-simulation technology for the Pentagon.
But who would have thought the CIA routinely called upon Hollywood to assist it with its crazy-but-true top-secret operations, such as making exploding cigars to kill Fidel Castro, wiring cats with microphones for eavesdropping and disguising agents and contacts as movie stars for public meetings?
The Washington/Hollywood collaboration was never closer and more deliriously far-fetched than when veteran CIA agent, and "identity transformation" specialist Tony Mendez, cooked up the cockamamie idea of rescuing six American diplomats hiding in the Canadian embassy in Tehran at the time of the Iran hostage crisis under the guise of a fake movie production.
Using his long-time Hollywood collaborator, Jack Chambers, a make-up artist who won an Oscar for The Planet of the Apes, Mendez created a faux production company called Studio Six and a never-to-be- made movie, a Star Wars knock-off named Argo to be shot in Tehran. Mendez would then travel to Iran on a location search and return home with his "crew", the six endangered diplomats.
It's a rip-roaring story that, for most of its running time, is wonderfully well served by comeback kid Ben Affleck, who steps up into the major league after proving he has the directing chops with his two Boston-set crime dramas, Gone Baby Gone and The Town with this.
Astutely, Affleck, who also plays Mendez, balances the comic aspects of Argo with the serious, shifting seamlessly between a stinging Wag the Dog-style send-up of the shallowness and shamelessness of Tinseltown, and an expertly orchestrated thriller that reminds us of the genuine threat posed to the American diplomats by inflamed supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Affleck has a wonderful eye for the look and feel of the period. Not only does he fill the screen with a haze of wide collars, fat ties, bell-bottom trousers and glasses the size of windshields, as well as an array of cringe-inducing pre-digital technology, he also shoots in a 1970s/early 80s style, so much so Argo could pass for a movie released during this era-defining crisis.
And the casting is equally effective.
The breakneck Washington scenes, in which the various arms of government and secret service scramble to come up with ideas on how to get the diplomats who fled the besieged US embassy out, are dominated by the great Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), who gives Martinez the green light to go to Hollywood and make Argo ("It's the best bad idea we have," Cranston's Jack O'Donnell confesses to his superiors).
On the other side of the continent John Goodman, as the cynical but patriotic make-up maestro Chambers, and Alan Arkin as the old-time Hollywood producer who comes on board as much to prove he still has it ("If I'm going to make a fake movie, I'm going to make a fake hit") act up a storm as a pair of players who seem to get more of a kick out of making a phony flick than an actual one.
Especially telling is the scene in which Arkin's world-weary Lester Siegel draws a parallel between the harrowing images of the Iranian revolution on the evening news and the product of his own industry, a carefully stage-managed spectacle designed to get the attention of the world (Affleck brings home the point by recreating a chilling mock execution inside the American embassy).
So much good fun is had at the expense of the movie industry (Chambers even quips you can teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a couple of days) it is disappointing that in the final stretch Argo itself congeals into the kind of cheesy Hollywood spectacle it ridicules in the opening stretch, replete with a chase and Mendez kissing his estranged wife against a flapping American flag.
But perhaps Affleck is being ironic, reminding us that, in politics as in show business, you have to leave the audience on a high and not asking too many questions about what they've just seen and heard.Argo opens today.