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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Argo' is great — minus Affleck's acting

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(L-r) JOHN GOODMAN as John Chambers, ALAN ARKIN as Lester Siegel and BEN AFFLECK as Tony Mendez in "ARGO," a presentation of Warner Bros. Pictures in association with GK Films, to be distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Argo

(PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

When F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "There are no second acts in American lives," he probably didn't take into consideration how it might apply to the then-budding movie industry. Since its inception, many people who work in film have had many second lives, but few have done it so surprisingly or with such conviction as Ben Affleck.

Since his start in 1995, Affleck was regarded by most as a talentless pretty boy and industry joke whose looks were the only reason he managed to get work. His regular presence in the tabloids only added to his lightweight image and he remained famous solely because of his often turbulent personal life.

With "Gone Baby Gone" -- his first film as a director -- Affleck started turning heads, changing minds and increasing his street credibility which only grew stronger with "The Town." Even though it is the relative weakest of his three films to date, "Argo" provides solid proof that Affleck knows exactly what he's doing. Nobody thinks he's a joke anymore.

Leaving the comfy confines of his hometown of Boston, Affleck goes much further east this time and tackles a seminal moment in U.S. history that still remains a secret of sorts even to those who lived through it. It was a brilliant choice of material and shows that Affleck is willing to take on artistic challenges while not falling into a creative rut.

Affleck's only mistake with "Argo" -- and it's a big one -- was casting himself as the lead. Appearing weary and rundown for the entirety, he is the weakest link in his own movie and would have served himself far better had he turned over the role of CIA spook Tony Mendez to someone better suited -- say Javier Bardem, John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriguez or Benjamin Bratt.

Perhaps realizing he needed as much top-shelf supporting help as possible, Affleck tapped John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston and many other lesser-known character players to pick up the slack and all of them deliver. Doing even better were Affleck's production, set and costume design staffers who captured the air and questionable fashion sense of the late '70's with brilliant authenticity. Being a good delegator of authority is at least half of the battle for directors, and Affleck puts himself in more than capable hands on every level.

Literally within minutes word reached Washington that Iranian terrorists had taken over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the CIA went to DEFCON 1 and immediately brought in Mendez, an expert of getting in and out of dangerous places without detection. What most folks don't know is that Mendez wasn't called on to get the hostages released but rather figuring out a way to sneak out six embassy employees that barely got away and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.

With no ideal options to pull this rescue off, Mendez and his boss Jack O'Donnell (Cranston) offer up their "least awful" plan: pretend to produce a "Star Wars" rip-off shot in Iran and provide the embassy employees fake Canadian identities and film industry credentials.

This isn't as easy as it might sound. While morons on almost all other levels, the terrorists were frantically combing the city in search of the six escapees and had more than enough time to figure out the various scenarios of how they might get away. In a move reminiscent of "Wag the Dog," Mendez tapped the considerable skills of legendary make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) and old school producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) to go through the motions to make it look like their film "Argo" was above-board.

This required the writing of a script, initializing a marketing campaign and hiring a full cast and crew that all had to be kept deep in the dark. If that weren't difficult enough, Mendez had to teach the highly paranoid and often uncooperative embassy employees how to act like they were film industry professionals while learning verbatim phony biographies of themselves and their co-workers.

What could have been tedious and redundant turns out to be a nail-biter that could easily sit alongside the classic political thrillers made in the '70s. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio also take every opportunity to toss in considerable humor into the mix, which provides something more than the typical cinematic comic relief. More importantly the filmmakers present a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat even if you already know the outcome going in. That's the sign of people dedicated equally to craft and entertainment. Keep it up, Ben -- you're doing great. Just don't act in your next movie. (Warner Bros.)