Ben Affleck's absorbing thriller 'Argo' also laugh-out-loud funny; a must-see

Ben Affleck isn’t just a good director, he’s a great director and “Argo” is thus far the pinnacle of the Oscar-winning star’s career. A gutsy blend of suspense and off-the-wall humor, “Argo” will immediately grab you from the rush of its prologue and not let go until the end credits roll.

When the CIA runs out of options to rescue six Americans hiding in the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran (Victor Garber) after fleeing the US embassy, Tony Mendez (Affleck) concocts the unbelievable plan to enter Tehran, in the midst of violent anti-American upheaval, under the guise of a Canadian film production company interested in using the city as a backdrop for a “Star Wars” knockoff called “Argo.” Mendez’s plan:  enter Iran, collect the six Americans, scout locations as a film crew to create a believable cover and then simply exit the country.

In order to make the cover plausible to Iranian officials, Mendez forms a mock Hollywood production company, enlisting the aid of legendary makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and cantankerous director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). From table readings with actors in outlandish alien costumes to a full-on ad print campaign, Mendez, Chambers and Siegel use the media to solidify their cover.

It may sound as far-fetched as a silly 80s comedy, but “Argo” is based on a true story; a mission sanctioned as high up as the White House.

Sporting a late 1970s mop hairstyle, Affleck stoically moves through the film with nary a change of countenance. After all, his character is on a deadly serious mission, but compared to the rest of the affable cast, Affleck comes across as stale. The supporting characters, whether the panic-stricken Americans hiding in Tehran or the goofy mock film crew holed up in Los Angeles, create the detailed and exciting world surrounding Affleck’s Mendez.

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“Argo” is Affleck’s third feature as director (his previous two films are “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”) and what he lacks in front of the lens is superbly countered behind the camera.  Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio deliver a tense, absorbing thriller that is just as laugh-out-loud funny as it is a nail-biter. Believable suspense is hard enough to pull off and comedy is even harder, but Affleck combines both for an unparalleled political potboiler. Case in point, most people already know the outcome of the Iranian hostage situation, but Affleck shows real skill by pulling off a riveting, pulse-pounding climax.

Though the film is undeniably gripping, Affleck and Terrio use the convenience of movie time to heighten the suspense. Affleck uses good, old-fashioned movie tricks to keep you on the edge of you seat, especially through some of the unbelievable obstacles that arise during the many races against the clock in the latter half of the film. They are seemingly cheap ploys, but perhaps not as inappropriate as it first appears, considering the hokey movie they are pretending to make.

The wonderful Bryan Cranston and Chris Messina co-star as Affleck’s CIA colleagues, but it’s Alan Arkin as Siegel that is the life of the film. He is given just about all the best dialogue in the film, which he delivers with his usual panache. Arkin, along with John Goodman as John Chambers, the legendary Hollywood makeup artist known for “Planet of the Apes” and the original “Star Trek” television series, are the welcome comic relief throughout the intense drama, often throwing jabs at Hollywood and the insular film industry.

To top it off, Affleck shows a somewhat brutal disconnect between Hollywood and the rest of the world, flashing between the production of some awful looking pictures to the reign of terror in Iran continually shown on the nightly news.

Not only is the script a bull’s-eye but the production design and late 70s period clothing are tops. The end credits reveal archival photos of the events depicted in the movie, and the film’s reproduction of those photos are most impressive.

“Argo” is one of those rare movies that seemingly has it all. Affleck has packaged a film brimming with suspense, comedy, history and a little outlandish spice to boot. “Argo” is a must-see.