Argo

Ben Affleck scores again with a tight and tense political thriller sparked by unexpected humor.

Argo is a crackerjack political thriller told with intelligence, great period detail and a surprising amount of nutty humor for a serious look at the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81. Proving even more than before that he's a behind-the-camera force to be reckoned with, Ben Affleck tells a dense, multilayered yarn "based on a declassified true story" with confidence and finesse, while an unlikely Hollywood angle will make the industry crowd feel proud of itself. From all points of view, this is one of the major releases of the fall season.

The perilous state of U.S.-Iranian relations only can heighten the interest in and relevance of this fascinating sideshow to this turning point in modern history. The truth about the "best bad idea" the CIA could concoct to rescue six U.S. embassy workers who had escaped the compound was unknown until 1997 and even then did not receive enormous publicity.

A stylishly succinct prologue made up of cartoons and documentary footage lays out in simple terms what led up to the departure of the Western-supported Shah and the advent of the Ayatollah Khomeini and fundamentalist Islam in Iran in 1979. Visceral scenes convey the desperation of American embassy workers to burn or shred sensitive documents before the mobs break through the gates and invade the premises, where they take 52 hostages. But six Americans managed to slip out and take refuge in the still-operating Canadian embassy. With his CIA colleagues at a loss to figure out how to sneak the six out of Iran, bearded, longish-haired agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) happens to catch a bit of Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV and hatches a scheme both birdbrained and brilliant: He'll approach the series' prosthetics expert (real-life Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers, wonderfully played by John Goodman) to help set up a phony science fiction project with sufficient plausible reality that he might be able to get the six out of Iran posing as production personnel on a location scout.

Thus follows a most amusing Hollywood interlude for which the cynical remarks of a veteran producer with some time on his hands, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin at his deadpan best), set the absurdly funny tone. Lester insists that the picture must appear to have a degree of legitimacy to it, so an existing Star Wars-type rip-off script called Argo is purchased, a reading is held at the Beverly Hilton with costumed actors, and ad space is even bought in the trades.

So while Lester cracks that, "We had suicide missions in the Army that had better odds than this," the CIA, fronted here by Mendez's boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), surprisingly approves what it calls "The Hollywood Option," and Mendez heads for Tehran.

The final act of the highly skilled screenplay by Chris Terrio ramps things up from cold-sweat tension to seconds-ticking suspense. It would be a major surprise indeed to learn that things actually went down just as they are shown here. But if you want a strictly factual account, you'd probably rather be watching a documentary.

Still, the film achieves an authentic feel and an outstanding sense of period. Turkey ably stands in for Iran in crucial exteriors; the many phones and copy machines are right; and the fashions -- from the tacky casual wear to the outsized glasses frames -- are spot-on in their infinite hideousness. Rodrigo Prieto's superior cinematography affects a deliberately grubby look entirely in keeping with locations and desired feel of sweaty squalor.

Although the dramatic conclusion comes as no real surprise, it nonetheless delivers a strong charge of honest emotion, especially surprising for what in format is a genre film.

Opens Friday, Oct. 12 (Warners)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Director: Ben Affleck Rated R, 120 minutes:

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