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Affleck brings his 'A' game in 'Argo'

12:09 AM, Oct. 12, 2012
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Scoot McNairy, from left, Kerry Bish, Tate Donovan Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall appear in a scene from the motion picture 'Argo.' (Gannett, Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures/File) / GANNETT
Ben Affleck appears in a scene from the motion picture 'Argo.' (Gannett, Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures/File) / GANNETT

‘Argo’

Star rating:★ ★ ★ ★
Rated: R for language and some violent images.

Ben Affleck appears in a scene from the motion picture 'Argo.' (Gannett, Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures/File) / GANNETT

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Simply put, “Argo” is why we go to movies.

It’s entertaining. It’s smart. It’s well-acted. It’s fast-paced and exciting, thrilling at times. It’s about something, based on a true story, no less, of getting Americans trapped in Iran in 1979 out of the country. It takes you out of the present and puts you in a different time, a time meticulously recreated, which helps, of course. But more important than period haircuts and goofy leisure suits, it recreates the mood of an era, a nation’s frustration and anger, all while rollicking along with a crackling adventure.

However good a job Ben Affleck did in directing “The Town” (very), he ups his game here. There are so many places he could have steered the film wrong. Yet he stays the course, making “Argo” easily one of the best movies of the year.

It begins with a quick primer on how and why relations between the U.S. and Iran had deteriorated so badly by 1979, with the Shah in exile and the Ayatollah Khomeini in power. Cut to the streets outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November ’79, thick with angry militants who soon overflow the barriers and gates. Embassy employees work feverishly to shred and incinerate documents before the throng gets inside the building, which they eventually do, taking 52 Americans hostage in a standoff that would last 444 days.

What the Iranians don’t know is that six Americans escaped, and are hiding out in the Canadian embassy. This goes on for a couple of months but it’s dicey for everyone involved, as the streets grow more and more violent. Somehow the United States has to get the six out. But how? No one seems to know, each idea more ridiculous than the last.

That’s where Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes in. A CIA operative who specializes in difficult extractions, his idea is crazy, too, but it is, as one person calls it, the best bad option: The six will pose as part of a film crew scouting locations in Iran for a science-fiction film, with Mendez the producer. But there’s more. To sell it, there has to be a realistic Hollywood element. Mendez calls on John Chambers (John Goodman), a make-up artist who’s helped out the CIA before. Together they meet with Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a cranky old producer who spends his time receiving lifetime-achievement awards.

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They need a script, some ads in the trades, a press conference, the works. All for a movie that does not exist and never will. Arkin is at his crusty best putting the pieces together. They find a script for a science-fiction movie called “Argo.” Iran’s landscape could double for whatever planet the picture is supposed to take place on. And so the plan is hatched.

Even in retrospect it sounds crazy. Because it was. So much could go wrong at every turn, something that is also true of the film. But Affleck keeps the momentum going non-stop and gets a terrific performance out of every actor, including himself. Among the other notables: Bryan Cranston is perpetually annoyed as Mendez’s boss, a good man stuck in the middle of government bureaucracy. Victor Garber is the picture of decency as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador. Kyle Chandler makes a convincing Hamilton Jordan.

As much as he gets out of the actors, Affleck’s biggest accomplishment is recreating a time when a confused America struggled to come to terms with Muslim rage, something we have struggled with since. One could possibly argue that the film is too entertaining, that it breezily tackles one of the darkest hours in our history.

You will not find that argument here. Affleck’s sure hand never wavers; while much of the movie is indeed funny and all of it enjoyable, we never forget what is at stake: six people’s lives and, if the plan goes south, a whole lot more. This is a movie with a lot of parts, and Affleck fits them all together masterfully. “Argo” is a gem.

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