Tense, terrific ‘Argo’ is thriller and history lesson in one

John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in ‘Argo.’ Rated R, 120 min. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012.

In the true story recounted by “Argo,” six American embassy workers in Iran escaped into the city of Tehran just before the prolonged 1979 hostage crisis. To get them out safely, the CIA employs “ex-filtration specialist” Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed the film). His plan is wildly unconventional and risky, involving fake identities and an elaborate ruse about a Canadian film production company, with all of Hollywood playing an unwitting role.

Tony gets some help from film producer Lester Siegel (a fire-tongued Alan Arkin) and makeup guru John Chambers (a nicely cynical John Goodman). Bryan Cranston growls some orders as Tony’s boss, and Victor Garber is compassionate as the Canadian ambassador who harbors the Americans.

The cast – while impressive – is so large that not many of the players get a chance to create real personalities. Even Tony’s family story seems tacked on. With a tale this timely and gripping, any false-feeling emotional manipulation is unnecessary. Of course, the script may contain some exaggerations for dramatic effect, but they are easy to overlook during the pulse-pounding scenes of suspense and fear that Affleck and his team have created.

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