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Affleck’s Argo tells a compelling true story

Even the most jaded moviegoer looks forward to autumn, as Hollywood tends to save its prestige products for the end of the year, when they’ll be fresher in the hearts and minds of critics and, more importantly, Academy voters.

Argo , a dramatization of a daring CIA rescue of six Americans during the American Embassy siege in Tehran in 1979, is first-class Oscar bait. Adapted by Chris Terrio from Joshua Bearman’s 2007 Wired article “Escape from Tehran” and assuredly directed by leading man Ben Affleck, the film generates considerable tension throughout, even though the outcome of the actual story is, by now, well known.

Affleck plays real-life CIA operative Tony Mendez, charged with formulating an escape plan for the officials who managed to flee when Iranian revolutionaries seized the embassy and are surreptitiously holed up in the residence of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (reliable Victor Garber).

Mendez’ plan is, as he himself acknowledges, the best of bad possibilities, but with each passing hour the odds mount against the officials. He will pose as a Canadian filmmaker scouting locations for a science-fiction epic to be called, of course, Argo. To this end, he enlists the assistance of Oscar-winning Planet of the Apes makeup master John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to act as his front. This being the post-Star Wars era, producers are scrambling to lay their hands on every science-fiction and fantasy project they can.

Chambers and Siegel, both frustrated and angered by the hostage situation in Iran — as many Americans were during those 444 days — readily agree to lend their assistance and expertise in promoting an endeavor that doesn’t exist, and never will. If it succeeds, there will be no glory (the actual incident wasn’t publicized until confidential files were declassified in the late ’90s), but that’s not their concern. Chambers and Siegel are, in their own way, patriots. Whatever they can do to help, they will.

The Hollywood scenes are remarkably humorous, to say nothing of entirely believable, yet they don’t detract from the seriousness of the story nor its suspense.

Once the plan is set in motion, Mendez will have only a few days in which to fly to Tehran, “rehearse” his charges, and then get them on a plane at Tehran Airport. If they’re caught, they’ll likely be executed. The Iranian militia are not portrayed as likable in any way, but they’re not portrayed a mere thugs, either. Collectively and individually they are a formidable foe.

Argo is only Affleck’s third feature as a director, following Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), and this is his best to date. Like many actorturned-directors (including George Clooney, one of Argo’s producers), Affleck — as both co-star and director — is generous to his actors, allowing them to make their mark even in smaller roles. Arkin and Goodman are delightful, and Bryan Cranston — who it seems has been in every other movie released recently (Rock of Ages, Total Recall, Madagascar 3, et al — enjoys one of his most substantive screen roles as Mendez’ tough but fair boss. Clea DuVall (particularly good), Titus Welliver, Chris Messina, Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Richard Kind (hilarious) and Taylor Schilling (as Mendez’ estranged wife) are also seen to good effect here.

Argo is also a rarity in that it depicts a covert government operation with a positive intent (and outcome), yet it doesn’t strive for an unnecessary jingoism. Although some events and characters have been changed to enhance dramatic impact, and although the end credits indicate that the CIA offered no official assistance, it feels right and it feels real. This is not a film wanting for more, it’s that satisfying and compelling. There’s even a memorable catchphrase, although not one suitable for polite company or, in this case, a family newspaper.

LOG ONTO YesWeekly.com — click on the “Flicks” section. Then go to “What’s Showing”