Just so we're straight, Ben Affleck doesn't merely direct Argo, he directs the hell out of it, nailing the quickening pace, the wayward humor, the nerve-frying suspense. Hold off on the sniping. I didn't say Affleck was the next Hitchcock. I'm saying job well done. Argo takes Matt Damon's BFF out of his native Boston, where his first two directing jobs were set (Gone Baby Gone, The Town), and zaps him onto a global stage, namely the 1979 Iran hostage crisis that saw 52 Americans held captive for 444 days. Affleck does himself proud, detailing the attack on the American Embassy in Tehran by Islamic student militants and the plight of six U.S. embassy staffers who escaped but needed help to get out alive. Argo is a ferociously exciting thriller. Yes, it's based on fact. Yes, that's Hollywood code for truth-stretching. But, no, you shouldn't be that worried.
And speaking of Hollywood, that's where the truth of Argo becomes stranger than fiction. Top CIA extractor Tony Mendez (Affleck cannily underplays except for a scary Seventies haircut that's the tonsorial equivalent of shag carpeting) enlists the dream factory to get his escapees out of hiding – they're cocooned for nearly three months by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) – and on a plane to safety. Not only does Mendez pose as a Canadian film producer scouting Iran to film a fake sci-fi epic called Argo, he must train each of his six charges to persuasively play members of a film crew. Rich satire is mined as Mendez makes the phony Argo movie look legit, complete with casting calls, production meetings and posters. He gets help in L.A. from real-life Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman, wonderfully droll) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a composite of every film producer who ever barked his way to being boss. Arkin is comic perfection, relieving the stress with deliciously cynical line readings.
As the tension mounts, with protesters savagely rocking the van carrying the crew as they drive through the Grand Bazaar (a great sequence), you'll feel nothing but grateful for the Arkin-Goodman shenanigans.
Everything culminates in the film's final third, as Affleck takes the next step in what looks like a major directing career. There's no doubt he's crafted one of the best movies of the year. Added props to Chris Terrio, whose gathering storm of a script puts the major players in motion: Mendez and his nervous embassy workers speed off for the airport. CIA boss Jack O'Donnell (a superb, soulful Bryan Cranston) sweats out the "best bad idea" the agency could concoct. Chambers and Siegel keep their sham B movie humming in L.A. Only the Canadians, who spearheaded the rescue, get short shrift.
The Argo operation stayed top secret until Clinton declassified it in 1997. But given current U.S.-Iran relations, the film practically screams with topicality. Shot by the gifted Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain), with Istanbul standing in for Tehran, Argo has a propulsive energy that sweeps you along. And if the jacked-up climax, with its narrow escapes and a chase down the tarmac, doesn't jibe with pedestrian reality, don't sweat it. That's Hollywood for you.