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Ben Affleck stars in and directs "Argo," in theaters now.
Ben Affleck stars in and directs "Argo," in theaters now.

"Argo" a gripping must-see

After Ben Affleck delivered his hugely successful "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007 and followed it with 2010's "The Town," expectations for his latest directorial work, "Argo," were riding high. Audiences were naturally eager to see if his talent behind the camera would carry over into his new thriller, and there's no doubt it did.

"Argo" is based on the CIA rescue mission of six Americans trapped in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. "Exfiltration" specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) constructs a plan to pass them off as a Canadian scouting team for a bogus film shoot, then travels into the heart of the Iranian revolution to bring them home, risking not just his and their lives, but a potential international war.

The tension is evident immediately as "Argo" opens with a storyboarded exposition of the revolution and a massive live-action protest outside Iran's U.S. embassy. The conflict escalates quickly as the protest invades the building and drives the story's six into hiding at the home of the Canadian embassador. It's a heart-pounding scene that sets the pace for the rest of the film, which only ramps up the frequency of nail-biting moments.

Even before Mendez arrives the audience gets a clear picture of the ever-present risk the Americans and their hosts are faced with. Suspicions from the Iranian housekeeper, pressure from Canada for the ambassador and his wife to return home and the constant stream of television coverage only heighten the charged moods trapped inside the house. All this, coupled with a probably healthy dose of cabin fever, has the group already splintering off into different sides of arguments before Mendez arrives.

His plan inspires little confidence, but it does bring the situation's mixed emotions into a sharp and brilliantly captured relief. The six (played by Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishe) exhibit an expertly nuanced array of fear, frustration, anger, and hope throughout the turmoil. I was initially distracted by the handheld camera shots used in these scenes, but in retrospect – and coupled with the accompanying close-ups of the weary, vulnerable Americans – they only helped add to the tension.

This small Iranian ensemble is obviously the centerpiece of the story, but "Argo" also showcases a number of big names in smaller – but crucial – roles. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are as good as I expected as the movie pros driving the charade back in the States. They pilot most of the comic relief, and their characters are instrumental despite their limited screen time once things pick up in Iran. On the other end of the country, Bryan Cranston also plays a major role at the CIA home base, easily taking command over every minute of his time on screen.

Much like an actual mission, it's the full cast of characters that gives "Argo" its depth and intensity, rounding it out into a full-fledged dramatic blockbuster. The film is an intricately woven balance of intelligent dialogue and pulse-pounding conflict, and I wouldn't be surprised if it snagged its fair share of Oscar nods. It's not your traditional big-screen must-see, but "Argo" earns its keep with larger-than-life tension and phenomenal performances.


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