By CHRISTOPHER LAWRENCE
Even after the underrated “Gone Baby Gone.”
Despite the critical and commercial success of “The Town.”
It was still hard to believe this was the same guy from the Kevin Smith movies. “Daredevil.” Bennifer.
With “Argo,” Ben Affleck has cemented his sterling reputation as a director by delivering one of the year’s best movies. It’s a tremendous, confident retelling of an absurdly over-the-top — yet somehow real — rescue mission that’s part “Ocean’s Eleven,” part “The Great Escape,” with just a touch of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
After a brief history lesson, the action opens on Nov. 4, 1979, as workers at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran keep an eye on a growing mob of Iranian students while wondering, grimly, if the windows really are bulletproof. As the building is eventually overrun, six Americans (led by Tate Donovan) sneak out a back exit and seek refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber).
Then, more than two months later, with yellow ribbons dotting the U.S. landscape and “Revolutionary Guards going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses” in Tehran, the CIA finally calls in its top exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez (Affleck).
The best plan to rescue the six “houseguests” — smuggle them bicycles and have them wait until spring before cycling 300 miles to the border — sounds ludicrous. At least until Mendez unveils his idea: posing as a movie producer, flying into Tehran to scout locations and then bringing them home under the guise of a Canadian film crew.
From the chest fur and gold chains to the pneumatic tubes in the CIA offices to the very font in the title, “Argo” looks and feels like something from the era. (For proof, stay for the closing credits and photos of the real houseguests and other archival images.)
It also captures the terror of the situation as the houseguests — their eyes as wide as their shirt collars — are asked to entrust their lives to a stranger and a plan that sounds like it was concocted over speedballs in the writers room at “Saturday Night Live.”
After all, as Mendez’s boss (the capable-of-anything Bryan Cranston) reminds him, if he and the houseguests are caught, they die, badly, and in public.
“Argo” offers plenty of tension and edge-of-your-seat breath-holding as the Americans inch their way toward freedom, through a claustrophobic marketplace and streets choked with angry protestors.
But its best, most memorable moments come from the caper-style production of their cover story, the truly terrible “Star Wars” rip off known as “Argo.”
Working under the assumption that the bigger their lie, the more believable it will be to Iranian officials, a top makeup artist (John Goodman) and a legendary producer (Alan Arkin) are soon brought onboard.
Goodman and Arkin, reveling in the ridiculousness of it all, come dangerously close to stealing the movie out from under Affleck. “If I’m doing a fake movie,” Arkin’s Lester Siegel demands, “it’s going to be a fake hit.”
To further bolster the deception, they concoct a costumed reading of the “Argo” script, complete with a black Ming the Merciless, a blue Wookiee and several women clothed in what could only have come from Princess Leia’s Gold Bikinis for Less collection at Sears.
Credit Affleck for keeping these two wildly different ideas and tones in check. The Tehran portions would have been too grim without the humor, and the Hollywood scenes too flippant without the deadly stakes.
It’s still relatively early in the moviegoing year, with a slew of heavy hitters yet to come.
But, Bennifer be damned, there’s a very real chance that, come February, 15 years after “Good Will Hunting,” Affleck could once again become a part of another Hollywood super couple:
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com.