Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Directed by Ben Affleck

In the late 1970s, an unproduced Hollywood screenplay titled “Argo” had everything it needed to qualify as a fun science fiction adventure: huge starships, space battles, a heroic warrior, a beautiful princess and exotic locales. In short, it was exactly what the moviegoing public was looking for in the wake of the phenomenal worldwide success of a little movie called “Star Wars.”

The fact that it never got made was a blessing in disguise, particularly for six American Embassy officials taking refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador during the Iran hostage crisis that ran for 444 days between 1979 and 1981. To plot their escape, CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez concocted an outrageous plan that, in a twist of irony, could only happen in the movies: using “Argo” as a front, Mendez would fly the Americans out of Iran while they posed as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a movie that they had no intention of making.

To say that his operation was easier said than done would be the understatement of a lifetime, and his incredible story – top secret until it was declassified in 1997 by then-President Bill Clinton – is the focus of the spectacular new film directed by Ben Affleck. Based on a selection from “The Master of Disguise” (written by Mendez) and the Wired Magazine article “The Great Escape” (written by Joshuah Bearman), “Argo” succeeds as a thrilling, rousing and altogether brilliant masterwork that’s guaranteed to line up Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio) and Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin).

But more than just being a fascinating, often hilarious and incredibly entertaining crowd-pleaser, “Argo” is also a testament to just how much Ben Affleck has matured into one of the finest directors working today. After his impressive debut with 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” and his thrilling follow-up with 2010’s “The Town,” Affleck’s third time behind the camera succeeds as a towering cinematic achievement. Far beyond being proficiently made, perfectly paced, gripping and wholly engrossing, what’s truly amazing is how the film seamlessly shifts tones from the intense storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran to the hilarious Hollywood setting where the bold plan is hatched to the suspenseful edge-of-your-seat race against time to get out of Dodge before the gig is up.

The only problem with Affleck’s absolute triumph as a director is that it may overshadow his powerfully understated performance as Tony Mendez. Showier turns from Affleck’s supporting cast may get more attention, and for good reason: three-time Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) gives a strong performance as CIA assistant deputy director Jack O’Donnell, while John Goodman is also terrific as John Chambers, the renowned makeup artist who designed Mr. Spock’s pointed ears and won an honorary Oscar for his groundbreaking work on the original “Planet of the Apes.” But Alan Arkin steals the show as Lester Siegel, the old-time Hollywood producer who fronts the whole charade and drops classic one-liners the whole way through.

The fact that “Argo” is being released just as U.S. Embassies in the Middle East are once again being stormed underscores how relevant the story still is. And as an Oscar contender, it’s a frontrunner for a number of reasons. It’s based on a stirring true story, and it has a Hollywood ending that will make you cheer. The smart screenplay features great dialogue and makes Hollywood producers look good (for a change). It’s engaging from start-to-finish, and the performances are fantastic. And if it does reign supreme on Oscar night, that would be the best Hollywood ending of all.

-Scott Mantz