Ben Affleck has done it behind the camera again– directed a first rate thriller! It’s sleeker, sharper, and surer than his previous directorial work– and it’s already being touted as a possible Best Picture nominee: ARGO.  It’s a movie about making a movie, a story within a story, and as such is a great cinematic subject, turning the lens outward on history, inward as ironic commentary on the film industry, and ultimately, on the power of narrative itself.

ARGO tells the little known TRUE STORY behind the known story of the Iran hostage crisis, a plot Ben himself admits would be a  “terrible” premise for a film– except that it really happened. From the opening scenes, we are immediately  plunged into the action at the height of the Iranian revolution, just as Islamic militants are taking over the American Embassy in Tehran. These scenes are brilliantly matched to still photos of actual events. The camera is everywhere– outside as rebels are climbing the walls, inside as the terrified diplomatic corps scrambles to secure the building, shred sensitive documents, and save their own lives. The panic is palpable.

We know most of the rest– 52 Americans were taken hostage and held for 444 days. But six others escaped out a back door, found refuge in the Canadian Embassy– and then were trapped with no means of escape.

Enter Ben Affleck, as Tony Mendez,  a bearded CIA agent with a specialty: “exfiltration,” –that is, extracting people from impossible situations.  There are no good solutions here, but what Mr. Mendez comes up with is the “best bad idea” they have– and it’s so crazy it just might work. The six Americans will disguise themselves as a Canadian film crew, doing research in Iran, for a sci-fi movie called– you guessed it–ARGO. After doing a little site visit, the plan is for the six to simply hop a plane and leave. Not so simple.

The web of lies Tony must spin has to be believable– just like a movie. He needs to create a context, a back story, publicity; it must be utterly convincing, or they will all be caught and killed– and that’s when ARGO turns, subtly, into a comedy.  Alan Arkin and John Goodman –perfectly cast as a big Hollywood producer and an ace make-up artist– give the film heft and resonance. What these Tinseltown veterans know about fakery, onscreen and off, as the real life veterans they are, will make you laugh, even as the suspense mounts. How the film manages these delicate shifts in tone appears effortless; it isn’t. Ben credits  Arkin and Goodman with knowing just the right way to spin the lines, but Ben is wise enough to know how far to let them spin.

As for Affleck the actor– he’s a bit slack in the part– underplaying, which is a good thing, though his character is too opaque, and the subplot involving his broken marriage is not as dramatically integrated as it should be to make an impact. But what absolutely does register is the suspense– it’s almost unbearable. Ben the director knows just how to pace the climactic moments, leaving you to wear out the edge of your seat as you hang on for dear life. I saw it twice and it was even more intense the second time around.

Don’t miss ARGO– or rather “Argo on and see it.” Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about…!