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posted: 10/11/2012 6:00 AM

Ben Affleck's 'Argo' a white-knuckle trip to 1979 Tehran

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  • American intelligence officer Tony Mendez (director Ben Affleck) walks into harm's way to rescue six U.S. embassy workers in "Argo."

      American intelligence officer Tony Mendez (director Ben Affleck) walks into harm's way to rescue six U.S. embassy workers in "Argo."

  • Movie denizens John Chambers (John Goodman), left, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) agree to help intelligence agent Tony Mendez (director Ben Affleck) rescue fugitives from Iran in "Argo."

      Movie denizens John Chambers (John Goodman), left, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) agree to help intelligence agent Tony Mendez (director Ben Affleck) rescue fugitives from Iran in "Argo."

  • Video: ARGO trailer

 
 

Ben Affleck's fact-based drama "Argo" hits such a suspenseful nerve that it doesn't matter we already know it has a happy ending.

Actually, the movie's last 15 carefully crafted minutes -- as U.S. operatives launch an audacious rescue during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis -- create such a storm of threat, tension and menace that you become convinced that anybody can die at any moment!

"Argo" marks Affleck's third movie as a director, and if there is such a thing as a stride for him, he doesn't just hit it, he clobbers it.

After an impressive directorial debut with the crime story "Gone Baby Gone" and an equally impressive follow-up with "The Town," Affleck tackles a historical drama so steeped in realism and truth -- with a surprising dose of perfectly pitched humor -- that "Argo" almost plays like a documentary.

In fact, if you hang around for the closing credits to "Argo," you might be bowled over by how authentic the entertaining movie you just saw really is.

What breathes added life into "Argo" is the uncanny timing of its release, just a few weeks after the assault against the American embassy in Libya during which Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed.

I saw "Argo" before the embassy siege in Libya, yet it still felt fresh and frightening. Of course, I remember Nov. 4, 1979, when the Tehran embassy fell and the militants held American hostages for a long, dark 444 days.

What we didn't know then was that six embassy workers had escaped through a back door and were scooped up by the Canadian ambassador, who risked his life and the lives of his family and house workers by concealing the workers at his home.

The American intelligence services realize that it's only a matter of time before the Iranian militants figure out that six embassy employees are missing. Only a matter of time before they find the workers.

This is where Tony Mendez comes in.

Mendez, played by a bearded Affleck, is a master extractor. He comes up with "the best bad idea" of how to get the workers out quickly. The U.S. government will front a phony science-fiction movie production titled "Argo." Film people will come to Tehran to scout locations for it.

When the "Argo" production team finishes, they will leave the country with six more members than they had coming in. That's the plan.

Chris Terrio's tight screenplay -- based on "The Master of Disguise" by Antonio J. Mendez and a Wired article "The Great Escape" by Joshuah Bearman -- is rife with punchy, character-defining dialogue delivered by a crackerjack cast, headed by John Goodman and Alan Arkin as, respectively, Hollywood fixture John Chambers and foxy old producer Lester Siegel, a composite character.

With Bryan Cranston's intelligence officer Jack O'Donnell stuck back at headquarters, Mendez takes his team to Tehran to pull off the impossible.

As a director, Affleck whitens up our knuckles with shameless, effective devices designed to maximize our anxiety to nail-biting levels.

Yet, as an actor, Affleck seems woefully undercranked as a maverick, think-outside-of-the-box type. It's almost as if he's a live-action Mickey Mouse, a blandly agreeable, reliable guy who gets one -- just one -- humanizing subplot: He must return home to patch up his dissolving marriage.

Meanwhile, the success of the "Argo" mission rests on the six embassy employees to assume the identities of film production workers. They must remember their fictional names, backgrounds, jobs, families, friends and training.

One slip, they die.

Who says acting degrees have no practical use in the real world?

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