If "Argo" were a spy novel, it'd be a silly page-turner. The plot is so implausible, it's one of those paperbacks you'd devour, then toss aside without a second thought.
But no matter how absurd the premise, "Argo" is not fiction but based on a true story, one that in the skilled hands of director Ben Affleck makes a better movie than a pulpy novel could ever be. And while the riveting thriller takes the standard Hollywood liberties, it appears to mostly stick to the shocking, red-white-and-blue facts. The result is a booster shot of pure adrenaline and one of 2012's best and most exciting films.
"Argo" tells the story of a little-known CIA-sponsored operation in Iran during the 1979-81 American hostage crisis. As Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy to take 52 American hostages, six Americans managed to escape and hole themselves up in the Canadian ambassador's home. They were cloistered away while shredded documents that could identify them were being pieced together, and their fate was looking more and more grim.
To get them out safely, the CIA's exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) comes up with an audacious, last-resort mission -- have the group assume identities of a film crew scouting locations in Iran for an inane flick called "Argo" and try to sneak them out of the country.
Affleck realizes he has one incredibly tall tale to tell and manages to keep it credible as he walks us through the brazen operation from conception to execution.
Everyone brings their A-game, starting with first-time screenwriter Chris Terrio -- whose witty script is based on parts of Mendez's "The Master of Disguise" and a Wired magazine article -- fires off crackling, memorable dialogue. The supporting cast is flat-out brilliant. And the period details by production designer Sharon Seymour and the clothing by costume designer Jacqueline West whisk us back to a time when men wore gold chains and Tab was the drink of choice.
The major challenge for Affleck was to manage the tone of two very strikingly different situations: the glib nature of Hollywood moviemaking -- hilariously realized through two unforgettable comic performances by John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the in-on-the-scheme film guys based in Hollywood -- and the terror these six hostages were experiencing during a volatile historical event. It's a tightrope walk that requires being neither too flip nor too earnest, and Affleck juggles it all with acrobatic precision, respecting the need to be true to history while never missing an opportunity to entertain.
Often viewed as a capable if not extraordinarily gifted actor, the handsome star continues to build on his reputation as a talented filmmaker. His authoritative sense for realism was evident in his directorial debut, 2007's powerful "Gone Baby Gone." Last year's "The Town" conjured that same magic.
When he's in the director's seat, he brings an obsessive attention to detail, ensuring that every setting and character rings true with authenticity. With "Argo," the Oscar winner (for co-writing "Good Will Hunting" with Matt Damon) hones and sharpens that craft. Affleck captures not just the way we looked and acted during this era, but vividly brings history to life. The sense that you are there fills every scene, especially when the Embassy is stormed and in the film's pulse-pounding final moments.
Playing as critical a role in creating the historical backdrop are the actors. Affleck gives one of his best performances as Mendez, revealing his character's smarts and sense of calm in the chaos, even as events threaten to chip it away.
The most entertaining performances belong to Goodman as makeup artist John Chambers and Arkin as movie industry executive Lester Siegel, a character who's a composite of various real-life Hollywood types. They generate the most deserved laughs and ace every line.
My favorite, though, is Bryan Cranston. As Affleck's under-the-gun boss -- assistant deputy director of the CIA, Jack O'Donnell -- his searing performance is the most intense and relatable, building in tension until the "Breaking Bad" star reaches a breaking point and then cuts loose. "Argo" makes you feel his sweat, his pounding heart, his desperate grasp at time as the clock ticks down.
Cranston manifests the jangly nerves in character form, but it's truly director Affleck who's the one tightening the screws to an almost unbearable level. He's the master architect, and with "Argo," he's laid a foundation that future action films would be smart to follow.
* * * *
Rating: R (language and some violent images)
Cast: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston
Director: Ben Affleck
Running time: 2 hours