Movie review: Truth is more exciting than fiction in 'Argo'

Review • Thriller recounts daring CIA rescue mission.
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"Argo" is a marvelously exciting movie, a riveting thriller pulled from a real-life incident in which two of the most distrusted entities in American life — the Central Intelligence Agency and Hollywood — were the unmistakable good guys.

Director Ben Affleck — and who could have guessed that name and job title would fit so well together? — and screenwriter Chris Terrio weave together spy intrigue, political double talk, an international crisis and movie-industry self-deprecation into a story that's so fantastic that it had to be true.

It's 1979, after the revolution that deposed the Shah of Iran and put the Ayatollah Khomeini in power. When the Shah is allowed medical exile in the United States, Iranian rebels retaliate by overrunning the U.S. Embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days — a crisis whose resolution came in the final minutes of Jimmy Carter's presidency. When the rebels invaded, though, six U.S. Embassy workers sneaked out a back way and were given refuge by the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).

In early 1980, after a couple of months of the embassy "houseguests" hiding out, and with U.S. officials believing the Ayatollah's regime will figure out there are Americans unaccounted for, the State Department tries to devise an escape plan. To CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), an expert at such missions, the State Department's solutions are unworkable and will likely get six Americans killed. Mendez hits upon an audacious idea: He will go undercover as a Hollywood producer making a movie in Iran and claim that the six embassy workers are his film crew.

It's a long shot, but "this is the best bad idea we've got, by far," Mendez's boss (Bryan Cranston) tells the State Department honchos.

Mendez enlists John Chambers (John Goodman), the Hollywood makeup effects artist who worked on "Planet of the Apes," and together they recruit a producer (Alan Arkin) to find a script — a cheesy sci-fi adventure called "Argo" — and to set up a dummy production company to look convincing. Mendez then flies into Tehran to give the embassy workers their cover stories, which they must memorize and recite well enough to convince Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

Terrio's script and Affleck's direction combine these disparate settings — the glamour of a phony Hollywood party and the chaos of battle-torn Tehran — with an attention for detail that makes both worlds authentic and alive. This is especially evident in a powerful moment where a script reading of the sci-fi film is intercut with propaganda speechmaking by the Iranian hostage-takers.

Affleck's previous movies as director, the Boston-based crime dramas "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," drew favorable comparisons to Sidney Lumet's best work — and "Argo" also shows that Lumet touch for combining political importance and white-knuckle tension. Affleck also shows a sure hand with complex storytelling, neatly weaving the CIA office dynamics with the emotional stresses of the embassy "houseguests." And, just to show how good a director he is, he gets a soulful, stirring performance from none other than Ben Affleck.

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A CIA agent forms an outlandish plan to save six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis in this tension-filled true-life drama.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, Oct. 12.

Rating • R for language and some violent images.

Running time • 120 minutes.