Director Ben Affleck accepts the
Director Ben Affleck accepts the "Best Director" award for the movie Argo at the 2013 Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica on January 13. Picture: REUTERS

BEN Affleck’s ARGO has everything — tension, humour, heroics, expert performances —– a film needs to be thoroughly entertaining. And, adding to its appeal, Chris Terrio’s script is based on a creative deception that remained classified for nearly 20 years.

After a brief history which, it must be said, is refreshingly critical of US foreign policy, the stage is set to depict the 1979 storming of the US embassy in Tehran, shortly after the deposed Shah of Iran fled the country he had ruled and oppressed.

Theocratic Iran then vowed to avenge US interference in its affairs and a mob overran the compound, taking most of the staff hostage, while six of them managed to escape and take refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home.

Various fanciful plans to rescue the hidden personnel were discussed, debated and rejected until Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a self-styled exfiltration specialist in the Central Intelligence Agency, devised a scheme so audacious and crazy that it stood a chance of working.

Tony goes to Hollywood where he enlists the aid of John Chambers (John Goodman), a make-up artist, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a producer, in preparing a nonexistent film using Iran’s desert as the setting for Argo, a space opera.

Needless to say, the Iranians were fooled — otherwise there would be no story to tell — and the hostages, armed with Canadian passports and fake movie-related credentials, have to overcome the fear of having to risk their lives in a bid to escape.

Affleck, Goodman and Arkin shine, but special mention should be made of Victor Garber’s intrepid ambassador, whose diplomatic immunity was unlikely to be respected by the revolutionary Iranian regime.

It is interesting to note that the Iranians are planning their own film about an event that must have caused them as much embarrassment as the US Marines’ attempted rescue that failed because its helicopters malfunctioned after it was discovered that the desert was inhospitably full of sand. This was a very public humiliation for the Jimmy Carter administration; by contrast, the details of a successful mission had to be kept secret, waiting until now for Affleck to give it exactly the right treatment.

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JOHN Hillcoat’s LAWLESS is also based on a true story that has been handed down through generations of the Bondurant family until Matt, a relative chronicled in The Wettest County in the World, a novel he used to portray or perpetuate what might have become a legend. The county in question is in Virginia, the time is 1931 and the plot revolves around three brothers — Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clark) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) — in the Bondurant clan whose source of income is the illegal distillation of liquid stimulants banned by the Volstead Act of 1919 that imposed prohibition on the US for 13 years.

There was a ready market for illicit alcohol and the rivalry for supply and custom often resulted in battles between competing stills; and, complicating these volatile circumstances, there were local cops whose complicity had to be bought.

But this particular Appalachian community is about to receive visitors, all of whom were to disturb and influence future events in one way or another. Charlie (Guy Pearce), an FBI agent, is sent from Chicago to ensure that the scofflaws’ businesses come to an end; Banner (Gary Oldman), a mob boss, wants some or all of the action; and Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a dancer, simply wants to find peace in a rural setting after having had a rough time in the city.

A sadistic dandy, Charlie wants the cut his official position and ruthless methods deserve. Maggie sets her world-weary sights on Forrest while Jack falls for Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), whose Amish upbringing abjures drink.

Hillcoat previously directed The Proposition, a western set in his native Australia but not released here, and The Road, a bleak post-apocalyptic tale.

As before, he is not afraid to depict baser human behaviour and extreme violence, including the slitting of throats that is known as Chicago smiles, in a film that alternates between dull exposition and explosive action while actors born in the UK (Hardy, Oldman) and Australia (Pearce, Clark) struggle with a regional accent that is hard to follow at times and a script that could have used some editing.