"Argo" is a great movie saddled with a seemingly lousy title.
It's not until you sit through "Argo," director and star Ben Affleck's ripsnorting thriller, that the film's title begins to make sense. It's actually the perfect name, but it is not as if the title resonates with first-time hearers who've yet to see the film.
The movie is based on a true story. When Iranian revolutionists invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, six embassy employees managed to escape and secretly took refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
At the CIA, Tony Mendez (Affleck), an "exfiltration" expert, came up with a daring and perilous plan to rescue the six Americans. He proposed that, posing as a Hollywood movie producer, he'd go to Tehran and shepherd the six out of the country disguised as his film crew.
The movie that Mendez supposedly was making? A sci-fi extravaganza set in the Middle East called "Argo."
As a director (with help from screenwriter Chris Terrio), Affleck successfully surmounts three major challenges here. First, he has to establish the historical time frame and political setting for the Iranian hostage crisis, which he does both efficiently and clearly with a mix of archival footage and staged scenes showing the embassy's takeover and the subsequent reaction in Washington D.C. and the nation.
Secondly, he has to tell a fish-out-of-water story as Mendez navigates the putrid shores of Hollywood while establishing his cover story as a movie producer working on "Argo." These scenes, the funniest in the film, are sharply satirical as the CIA operative gets a crash course in the realpolitik of Hollywood with the help of two actual movie industry veterans, John Chambers (John Goodman), a special-effects wizard who has aided the CIA in the past, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, who's particularly hilarious), a seen-it-all producer. ("If I'm gonna do a fake movie, it's gonna be a fake hit," Siegel says.)
Finally, Affleck has to keep ratcheting up the suspense as Mendez heads to Tehran and attempts to rescue the six Americans. Will they buy into this stranger's seemingly wacky plan? And if they do, will it succeed?
Let's just say that the movie's final section is so nail-bitingly tense, thanks to a skillful combination of acting, writing and crosscutting, that it puts Affleck in the big leagues as a director. ("Argo" is his third film; he earlier directed 2007's "Gone Baby Gone" and 2010's "The Town.")
So, can Affleck do it all? Not quite. His performance as Mendez is efficiently competent but another actor -- maybe George Clooney, who is one of "Argo's producers, or buddy Matt Damon -- might have brought more shadings and depth to the role.
But that's a minor complaint. Like "All the President's Men," the Watergate thriller set in close to the same time period, "Argo" is that rarest of Hollywood offerings: a smart film based on real-life events that's also a sensationally suspenseful crowd-pleaser.