"Argo," Ben Affleck's electrically suspenseful, cunningly original true-life thriller, is the rare movie that has great fun while touching a raw political nerve.
It's set in 1979 and 1980, during the early months of the Iran hostage crisis, and it centers on six American officials who flee the U.S. embassy and take secret refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
The CIA decides that they can't stay there, that if they’re discovered, they’ll be executed in the streets. So they need to escape the country. But how?
Tony Mendez, a CIA operative played by Affleck in a dour beard and shaggy '70s hair, has a nutty, ingenious, out-of-the-box idea: The six will pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a cheesy pulp sci-fi movie called "Argo." With their fake identities established, they can fly to Switzerland right under the noses of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
To pull off the escape, the Americans can't just say they're a cinematographer, an assistant producer and so on. The movie they're pretending to work on has to be as genuine as possible, with links to the real world of Hollywood.
Mendez heads out to Hollywood, where everyone is trying to come up with the next "Star Wars," and he helps to set up "Argo" as a science fantasy adventure, complete with full-page ads in the trades and a low-rent schmuck of a producer, played by the great Alan Arkin.
At times, the comedy of the situation can make you think you're watching "Ocean's Eleven" crossed with "Munich." Yet what's sensational about "Argo" is the way that the caper movie and the dread-fueled plunge into the tinderbox of American-Iranian tensions only heighten each other.
Affleck gives this true story an explosive '70s movie vibe: Even when you're laughing, mostly out of uneasiness, the stakes couldn't be higher. "Argo" is never less than wildly entertaining, but a major part of its power is that it so ominously captures the kickoff to the world we're in now.