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the "Argo" movie poster

The poster for “Argo”. Premiering Friday, the film recounts a CIA mission to rescue 6 US embassy employees in Iran. Photo from IMDB.

A telephone ringing should not have an audience at the edge of their seats. But that is exactly what happened towards the end of the movie “Argo”, directed and starred in by Ben Affleck. That phone was life and death.

Based on a declassified CIA operation, “Argo”, premiering Friday, Oct. 12, starts in 1980’s revolutionary Iran, where agent Tony Mendez (a scruffy Affleck) must rescue six American embassy employees hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador. His plan? Escape undercover as a production team scouting for a science fiction film.

“Argo” could descend into tropes or camp to avoid aforementioned tropes, but it does neither. “Argo” balances between docudrama and thriller, lending humor to Mendez’s  just-crazy-enough-to-work  plot. It does not ignore the bloody revolution, but  the moments where the audience is reminded of it–a hanged man spinning in the wind is one especially stark example–it allows the emotional punch without beating the audience into miserable submission.

“Argo” can thank its actors for that balance. Affleck may be the star in the credits, but he doesn’t dominate too many scenes. His Mendez is weary and haggard, quietly determined to do his job and follow the CIA motto: “leave no one behind”, even if it means disobeying orders.

Bryan Cranston plays Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell, who is not above subterfuge to do what needs doing. In one critical scene, he impersonates someone from the school  attended by the Secretary of State’s children to get the man out of a meeting. Lives can’t wait for meetings, O’Donnell won’t either. Cranston acts with grave intensity; even when he delivers his funnier lines, it’s with the wry smile of a man with the world’s weight on his gray head.

But it’s Alan Arkin as producer Lester Siegel and Victor Garber as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor who really shine. Arkin’s Siegel is a mix of eccentric flamboyance and calculating businessman. He knows Iran won’t buy Mendez’s cover unless it passes the Hollywood test. As he warns Mendez early on, “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” Siegel orchestrates the blockbuster trappings that make “Argo’s” existence believable, and he does it in a gold Rolls-Royce.

Garber’s Taylor, by contrast, is quietly dignified. The only man standing between the six Americans and angry militants, Taylor is good, but not a martyr–every day the ‘houseguests’ are there, he and his wife are in danger. When he tells Mendez “it’s time to leave”, he does not just mean for the Americans to go, but for Canada to jump ship as well. Garber plays the role delicately, saying little while expressing volumes through body language and facial expression.

“Argo” tells a true story about a plan so crazy it seemed made for cinema. Whether it adhered strictly to the original mission, or took some artistic license seems inconsequential. That the story exists at all in our history is phenomenal. That it’s brought to the screen with such conviction is even more gratifying.

‘Argo’ — 4 stars

MPAA rating: R (for thematic elements, language, and violent images)

Running time: 120 minutes

Opens: Friday, Oct. 12