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Originally published Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 3:02 PM

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'Argo' rides the waves of suspense to a dramatic Hollywood ending

Based on the true story of how a CIA officer helped rescue six Americans trapped in 1979 Iran, "Argo," directed by Ben Affleck, is an inspiring tale of heroism and a crackling piece of entertainment.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Argo,' with Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan. Directed by Affleck, from a screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on a selection from "The Master of Disguise" by Antonio J. Mendez and the Wired magazine article "The Great Escape" by Joshuah Bearman. 120 minutes. Rated R for language and some violent images. Several theaters.

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"You don't have a better bad idea than this?" barks a CIA boss in Ben Affleck's terrific new thriller "Argo." The reply: "This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far."

Based on real events, "Argo" is the story of a bad idea turned into a brilliant one, and of how, miraculously, things worked out ... just like in the movies. It's 1979, the Iran hostage crisis dominates the headlines and six Americans are hiding at the Canadian ambassador's residence in Tehran, terrified that they will be discovered and killed. Back in the U.S., CIA "exfiltration" specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck, quiet and wary) knows that he needs to go to Iran, assign new non-American identities to the six, and get them out.

For that he needs a cover story, and Mendez comes up with a lulu: They're a Canadian filmmaking team, in Iran to scout out locations for shooting a big-budget blockbuster. This means that Mendez needs not only the help and cooperation of the Canadian government, but he needs a production office in Hollywood, staffed by famed makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and movie mogul Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). A screenplay (a sci-fi fantasy called "Argo") is chosen, announcements are made to the trade papers, posters are printed, buzz is created ... all for a movie that doesn't exist.

It's an audacious trick for a movie to juggle life-or-death drama with schmoozy showbiz machinations, and yet Affleck, working from a smart screenplay by Chris Terrio, makes it all flow like water. Following the equally fine "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," he's become an exceptionally good director of thinking-audience thrillers. "Argo" ticks along breathlessly, moving us smoothly through labyrinthine CIA offices and bustling Tehran streets, always giving the impression of vast crowds and busyness. Period details — the shaggy hair, the avocado-green push-button phones, the distant pounding of typewriter keys, the oversized glasses — are noted but not overplayed. Though this isn't a documentary, it feels real.

The Hollywood scenes, with Goodman and Arkin making a perfect old-school comedy duo (somebody give these guys a franchise), lighten the movie in its middle section, but its final third is all suspense. Though the specifics of the escape plan weren't made public for many years (it was top-secret until President Clinton declassified it in 1997), many of us already know the fate of the six — but it doesn't matter a whit as we follow them to the airport, wondering if these "Canadians" will make it through, holding our breath at the metallic, ominous sound of a phone ringing in an office far away. "Argo" is both an inspiring tale of risk and heroism, and a crackling piece of entertainment.

Moira Macdonald:

206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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