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'Argo' offers a tight political thriller sparked by unexpected humor

Warner Bros. Pictures

Bryan Cranston and Ben Affleck in "Argo."

REVIEW: "Argo" is a crackerjack political thriller told with intelligence, great period detail and a surprising amount of nutty humor for a serious look at the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81. Proving even more than before that he’s a behind-the-camera force to be reckoned with, Ben Affleck tells a dense, multilayered yarn “based on a declassified true story” with confidence and finesse, while its unlikely Hollywood angle will make the hometown industry crowd feel proud of itself. From all points of view, this is one the major releases of the fall season.

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The current perilous state of U.S.-Iranian relations can only heighten the interest and relevance of this fascinating sideshow to the main event, as a reminder of a dire turning point in modern history for those old enough to remember it and as a pertinent history lesson for people under 35. The truth about the “best bad idea” the CIA could concoct to rescue six U.S. embassy workers who had escaped the compound was unknown until 1997 and even then did not receive enormous publicity.

A stylishly succinct prologue made up of cartoons and documentary footage lays out in simple terms what led up to the departure of the Western-supported Shah and the advent of the Ayatollah Khomeini and fundamentalist Islam in Iran in 1979. Visceral scenes convey the desperation of American embassy workers to burn or shred sensitive documents before the raging mobs break through the gates and invade the premises, where they quickly take 52 hostages.

But more than two months later, the Iranians still don’t realize that six Americans managed to slip out and take refuge in the still-operating Canadian embassy. With his CIA colleagues at a loss to figure out how to sneak the six out of Iran, bearded, longish-haired agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), who has already extricated some of the Shah’s cronies out of the country, happens to catch a bit of "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" on TV and hatches a scheme both bird-brained and brilliant: He’ll approach the series’ prosthetics expert (real-life Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers, wonderfully played by John Goodman) to help set up a phony science fiction project with sufficient plausible reality that he might be able to get the six out of Iran posing as Canadian production personnel who’d been on a location scout.

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Thus follows a most amusing Hollywood interlude for which the cynical remarks of a veteran producer with some time on his hands, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin at his deadpan best), set the absurdly funny tone. Lester insists that the picture must appear to have a degree of legitimacy to it, so an existing Star Wars-type rip-off script called "Argo" is purchased, a reading is held at the Beverly Hilton with costumed actors, and ads are prepared.

So while Lester cracks that, “We had suicide missions in the Army that had better odds than this,” the CIA, fronted here by Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), surprisingly approves what it calls “the Hollywood Option.” The necessary doctored passports in hand, Mendez heads for the Canadian embassy in Tehran, where he meets six fellow Americans who are scared stiff.

The final act of the highly skilled screenplay by Chris Terrio, whose other principal credit is for directing the little-seen 2005 film Heights, ramps things up from cold-sweat tension to seconds-ticking suspense in traditional movie-movie fashion, even down to a pretty implausible but undeniably exciting climactic chase. It would be a major surprise indeed to learn that things actually went down just as they are shown to have done here. But if you want a strictly factual account, you’d probably rather be watching a documentary, which Argo decidedly is not.

Still, the film goes to great lengths to achieve an authentic feel and an outstanding sense of period. Turkey ably stands in for Iran in crucial exteriors; the many phones, communication and copying machines are right; and the fashions -- from the tacky casual wear sported by most characters to the outsized glasses frames -- are spot-on in their infinite hideousness. The old Warners logo from the period is used upfront, and the studio’s famous water tower has even been relabeled to duplicate its look at the time. Rodrigo Prieto’s superior cinematography affects a deliberately grubby look entirely in keeping with locations and desired feel of sweaty squalor.

Evocative use is made of TV news clips, from Mike Wallace’s in-person interview with Khomeini to glimpses of the very young-looking Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw. Small details are telling, such as how an Iranian passport official crosses out “Kingdom of Iran” on a form and scrawls in “Republic” instead, and how a British Airways flight attendant announces the end of alcoholic beverage service once the plane enters Iranian airspace.

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Although the dramatic conclusion comes as no real surprise and represents the merest drop of cheer in a sea of unpleasantness between the United States and Iran over the past 33 years, it nonetheless delivers a strong charge of honest emotion, especially surprising for what in format is a genre film. The final explanations of how the real story of the mission was finally revealed includes a voice-over by Jimmy Carter, who was president when it all took place.

Except for the showier turns by Arkin and Goodman, the performances are credibly utilitarian, led by Affleck as a smart agent who has learned not to tip his hand through outward displays. Cranston as Mendez’s boss and Victor Garber as the stalwart Canadian ambassador are similarly solid and unostentatious.

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