'Argo' review: Iran escape tale (three stars)

The most gripping sequence in "Argo," Ben Affleck's skillful retelling of a wild plan to rescue six Americans during Iran's 1979 hostage crisis, begins with the very first line. "The crowd looks a little bigger today, huh?" says a worried U.S. Embassy staffer as Iranian protesters roil outside his window. When one finally jumps over the compound fence, it isn't panic that first spreads through the office. It's doom.

This isn't an exact parallel to the events around Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens' death in Libya last month, but it's hard not to draw comparisons. "Argo" will go on to blend comedy, action, illusion and realism, but that solemn opening is a reminder of what's truly at stake.

Third-time director Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration specialist charged with smuggling out the Americans. Cover-identities are suggested and rejected -- journalists, teachers, charity workers? -- until Mendez gets this doozy: How about a Canadian film crew making a science-fiction movie? Reluctantly, deputy director Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) pitches it upstairs: "This is the best bad idea we have, sir."

From there, "Argo" (the title of some real guy's now-fake script) follows Mendez's efforts to transform a lie into the truth. He hires makeup artist John Chambers (a jovial John Goodman), who designed Spock's ears for the "Star Trek" series and won an Oscar for "Planet of the Apes" (and whose CIA work was so secret that his 2001 obituaries didn't mention it), and cantankerous producer Lester Siegel, a composite character winningly played by Alan Arkin. "If I'm gonna make a fake movie," he barks, "it's gonna be a fake hit!"

"Argo" tends to favor plot over character: Mendez is thinly drawn, as are the six Americans (effectively played by Kerry Bishé, Scoot McNairy and others). But it's a well-told story that's timely, topical and thoroughly entertaining.

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