Rating: ★★★★★

Argo continues the career reinvention of Ben Affleck from a likeable, gifted actor with questionable judgement into a shrewd director of muscular, thinking-man’s cinema, and after two certifiable home-runs (Gone Baby Gone, The Town), this knock-out third effort, easily his best, is bound to have awards circles singing his praises well beyond year’s end. This is a studiously directed, nerve-shreddingly urgent thriller that’s also a wryly savvy send-up of the inner corridors of Hollywood.

Relative newcomer Chris Terrio writes a script mature beyond his years, an opening summary succinctly detailing the 1979 Iranian Revolution for the uninitiated, where Tehran’s U.S. embassy is besieged in retaliation for the country’s support of a deposed Shah. With six delegates evading capture and holing up at a Canadian ambassador’s residence, the suits back home enlist CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to help plot a cover that would explain their presence in Tehran.

Mendez eventually devises the ingeniously demented deception; to have the six pose as members of a film crew, with Mendez purporting to fly out there to scout a location, and return with them in tow. Aiding him in his prep are Academy Award-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and snide film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who will help establish the apparent legitimacy of their production – an epic Star Wars knock-off called Argo – with the Iranian government.

From its opening siege scene, Argo is a work keen to keep viewers on their toes, and for all of its fantastic acting and sizzling humour, perhaps the pic’s major achievement – a rarity for one such as this – is in managing to consistently thrill the audience despite the end result being long-known. Presenting to us a group of eminently sympathetic hostages – played with aplomb by up-and-comers such as Scoot McNairy and Christopher Denham – Terrio keeps the suspense high with his Sorkin-like, rat-a-tat dialogue, capitulating the absolute excess of Hollywood film when juxtaposed with the real lives at stake, if ironically admitting cinema’s pivotal role in this daring operation. Further impressive is the scribe’s ability to wring black humour out of the fraught situation without surrendering the inherent humanity on both sides.

On a broader level, the film operates exceedingly well as a meticulously constructed chase thriller, with the CIA racing against the revolutionaries, who are slowly reconstituting shredded documentation which will reveal the identities of the missing delegates. What might prove a tricky sell with more mainstream audiences – that is, people who are neither cineastes nor film critics – is its deep-seated satire of the film industry, a delicious mockery of the self-important machinations that keep cinema’s wheels turning. This is realised brilliantly through two opposed poles; the ego-centric Siegel and the more grounded Chambers. Terrio is smart enough to keep his commentary – which riffs on the likes of the Cannes Film Festival and the WGA of all things – sly enough that it is unlikely to be a burden to more casual viewers, however.

There is no film this year with its eye trained on the SAG Best Ensemble award more than Argo, and with good reason. Though it will likely miss out on Academy Award nods for most of its acting – for even the juciest parts, played by Arkin, Cranston and Goodman, are relatively short – this is unquestionably the best matching-up of actors and parts yet seen this year. Affleck’s casting himself as the lead naturally made many uneasy, but it’s another smart choice; he imbues Mendez with an affable, every-man quality, lithely guiding us through the complex web of several bureaucracies, and then later on, the physical entanglements of staging a daring dash back to home soil.

Elsewhere, technical plaudits are going to be no less forthcoming in the following months; Sharon Seymour and Jan Pascale’s marvellous period production design, combined with spot-on costume work and a spiffy retro hairdo for Affleck – complete with teeming facial hair – perfectly slots into the film’s aesthetic, which effortlessly integrates real reportage from the time with Affleck’s cinematic narrative. The director’s free-wheeling sensibilities combine sumptuously with Rodrigo Prieto’s washed-out palette to painstakingly evoke the period.

Expertly paced, firmly controlled in even its gripping third act, while daring to concede the less-savoury homeland response – that a few lives are not worth the cost of a national embarrassment if the plan fails – Argo is an uncommonly affecting, fiercely intelligent account of a materially strange event in world history. Above all else, it might also be one of the most potent works on the literal power of filmmaking in quite some time; an ingeniously conceived thriller that’s almost as much about our collective love of cinema as it is a tricky international incident.

Argo is out now in the US and in UK cinemas November 7th.

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This article was first posted on October 23, 2012