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Movie Review: 'Argo' -- 3.5 stars

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in “Argo.”

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in “Argo.” Credit: Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in “Argo.”

3.5 stars
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Rated R

The saying holds that those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Ben Affleck's "Argo" demonstrates that truism on the largest possible cinematic scale. This thriller about the daring rescue of six Americans from Iran at the height of the hostage crisis takes place some 30 years ago, but might as well be ripped from the headlines today.

If you've been paying attention to current events, you'll recognize the roiling anti-American sentiments on display in the painstaking recreation of the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the profound tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments and the overarching clash of civilizations that seems to define today's tense geopolitical environment. The outfits, the hairstyles and some of the players have changed, but the story remains the same.

Here, Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA "exfiltration" officer and the architect of a plan to save the six embassy workers who escaped during the initial chaos. He'll put together a fake movie production - a sci-fi adventure called "Argo" - and transform the six young Americans into a "film" crew, shepherding them out of the country even as the unforgiving Revolutionary Guard hunts them down. The agency acknowledges that this is "the best bad idea" they've got, and soon enough Mendez is on the ground in Tehran, after a detour to Hollywood.

Over the course of three films behind the camera, Affleck has established himself as a top-of-the-line director, with an adept visual style and a keen grasp of cinematic tension. "Argo" is by far the most difficult movie he's directed, a film with a three-tiered structure (very different scenes set in Washington, D.C., Hollywood and Tehran) and a series of tense bullet point moments that require meticulous shooting, subtle acting and tight editing.

That it all plays so seamlessly, so impossibly smooth, is both a testament to Affleck's filmmaking skills and the air-tight script by Chris Terrio. But more than anything, it's a reminder of what the movies can offer when they're at their best: an escape into another world and a pertinent look at our own.

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