‘Argo’: Thriller is one of the best films of the year | 4 stars

It’s rare when a movie star legitimately transitions into a filmmaker.

Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty represent some of Hollywood’s most notable cases. It’s time to add Ben Affleck to that roster.

“Argo” joins Affleck’s previous Oscar-nominated efforts “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” as character-driven thrillers that radiate authenticity. But the scope, complexity and humor of his latest rise to a new level, making “Argo” one of the year’s best films.

Set in 1979-1980, “Argo” is based upon the can’t-possibly-be-true venture nicknamed the “Canadian Caper.” After the U.S. Embassy falls during the Iranian revolution, six employees find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. They survive for weeks in isolation, fearful they can’t hide out much longer.

The CIA and Canadian government develop a joint covert operation to rescue the group. CIA officer Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) explains, “They’ve got revolutionary guards going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses.” If the Americans are discovered, he worries, “these people die. They die badly. Publicly.”

Enter CIA “identity transformation” expert Tony Mendez (Affleck), who hatches a bold plan to personally smuggle the six out of Tehran. They will pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a “Star Wars” rip-off titled “Argo.”

Affleck manages to sustain the panic, chaos and terror gripping the Americans trapped in a hostile city. This is riveting material, further heightened by its contemporary significance. So many ticking-clock elements are juggled that the tension never subsides.

For instance, most of the classified documents were shredded before the U.S. embassy fell, but the Iranian militants employ dozens of boy carpet weavers to reconstruct the material. They are constantly piecing together new bits of information that challenges the rescue operation.

First-time feature writer Chris Terrio fills in (or embellishes) many of the details that weren’t included in Joshuah Bearman’s fascinating 2007 article for Wired that inspired the film. Terrio spent a decade in Hollywood working jobs ranging from penning press kits to directing. His ear for the absurdist intonation of the industry rings true.

Some of the most memorable conversations come courtesy of affable effects guru John Chambers (John Goodman) and surly movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), whom Mendez brings in to orchestrate the hoax.

“You want to set up a movie in a week?” asks the bemused Siegel. “You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living? Then you get to sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood in their breakfast cereal? Then you’re going to walk the Brady Bunch out of the most-watched city in the world?”

When things get unbearably tense in Iran, director Affleck often jumps back to the hilarious L.A. material. He crosscuts between an Iranian press conference of the captors detailing their demands and scenes of a script reading of the faux flick, cast garbed in costumes that look borrowed from TV’s “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”

“Argo” includes an interesting postscript about the actual people involved in the event. Not only does it offer tangible context to the story, it also points out the extraordinary detail that went into re-creating the Iran hostage crisis for the camera. (Most of the street scenes were shot in Turkey.)

Westerners rarely use the words “success” and “Middle East” in the same sentence. “Argo” is a crowd-pleaser in that regard — a wish-fulfillment fantasy in some respects. But this recently declassified tale really happened. The rescue really worked. And Affleck’s real film about a fake film proves equally successful.