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Argo ****

Argo - Warner Bros.

Is it worth $10? Yes

With "Argo," Ben Affleck removes any doubt that he is one of the finest directors working today. This is one of the best films of the year.

That's right, Ben Affleck. The star of "Armageddon" and "Gigli." He also directed "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," both of which made a number of critics' top ten lists and were widely respected. Given that "Argo" is arguably the finest of the three, any notion of his directorial success being a fluke -- or confined to Boston, his hometown and the location of his two prior movies -- is out the door. "Argo" is a masterpiece of impressive acting, timely comic relief, smart storytelling, and the gradual building of tension that culminates in a pulse-pounding conclusion. No movie has held me in greater suspense this year, and it's doubtful any others will come close.

Because this is based on a declassified true story from C.I.A. archives, viewers are strongly encouraged to not research the real events prior to seeing the film. Doing so would ruin the ending and undermine the tension that Affleck very carefully, methodically creates.  

The premise: In late 1979, Iranians are irate that the U.S. has granted asylum to their former leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Now under the guidance of Ayatollah Khomeini, revolutionaries storm the U.S. embassy in Iran and take hostages, demanding the release of the Shah back to Iran so he can be executed. During the takeover, six American employees escape and take refuge at the Canadian ambassador's (Victor Garber) home.

Back in the U.S. at the C.I.A., exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) rack their brains for a way to get the hostages out. There are no good, plausible ideas, so they settle on the best bad idea they can think of: Create a fake movie. This is where things get fun, as Tony ventures to L.A. and teams up with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a fake movie studio, story boards, costumes, etc. The only thing that isn't fake is the script -- a cheesy futuristic sci-fi yarn -- but it is terrible. The plan: Tony and the hostages pretend to be a film crew on a location scout for the movie. The hostages will need to learn their cover identities in less than 48 hours if they hope to make it out alive.

Argo - Warner Bros.

Chris Terrio's script is tight and efficient, telling us only what we need to know in order to keep things moving forward. More importantly, the writing allows Arkin to be at his wise-guy best, Goodman, Cranston and Garber to be solid as always, and Affleck to be a convincing and stoic lead. For as great as Affleck's directing is, his acting has always been average at best. Here he doesn't emote often, but does have an appropriately determined yet fearful look on his face for much of the film. His finest moments come when Tony has every right to be scared but strongly holds back letting anyone see his fear, instead resorting to a blank stare of conviction. It's subtle, effective acting that will not blow you away but is essential to the film's success.

More than anything, "Argo" is an example of a story told with great skill and precision. Surely, when there's a legit lump in your throat for the last half hour of a film it's a rare circumstance that should be cherished and embraced. It's foolish and presumptive to speculate how many (if any) awards "Argo" will win, but it is a definite contender in what's shaping up to be a stacked Oscar season.

Did you know?
Stay for the credits -- comments from President Jimmy Carter are heard as we see pictures of the real people involved.