Argo is the Ben Affleck-directed movie about the CIA’s extraction of several U.S. embassy staff hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence, while post-revolutionary Iran seethes with anti-American rage.

Actually, it’s two movies – a crackerjack escape flick in the vein of Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain” and a sly Hollywood satire about the making of a cheapo sci-fi film in early eighties Hollywood – both woven together with expert panache.

Affleck also stars as self-described CIA “shephard” Tony Mendez who specializes in sneaking people out of war-torn countries.   To get the Americans past the wild-eyed revolutionaries manning customs, Mendez proposes that the embassy staff pose as a film crew scouting locations in Iran for what sounds like a truly atrocious sci-fi film entitled Argo.

To insure that the cover story stands up to scrutiny, Mendez travels to Hollywood and enlists the aid of two industry stalwarts,  make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman, in charming aw-shucks mode) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), all soggy cigars and knowing shrugs.  Affleck’s directorial touch is especially light and assured in these scenes; rather than being reduced to craven cartoons, all of the Hollywood players are imbued with warmth and humanity, genuinely moved by the plight of the stranded Americans.  They hilariously purchase the script for Argo, start up publicity in Variety and begin casting, all of which seems too ludicrous to be true (except that it is based on a true story).

Once the “movie” part of the movie is up and running, Mendez heads off to Iran to prepare the embassy staff for their “roles” which require them to tour Tehran intermingling with riotous crowds that want them dead.  Meanwhile, the Iranian revolutionaries are closing in on the Americans hiding place, and the Canadians are questioning whether sheltering the Americans is more trouble (and more danger) than it’s worth.  There is no safe haven here.   The writers smartly establish a credible and unnerving ticking clock, and the tension is palpable.

However, the film does hit some snags at this point.  When Mendez arrives and pitches his escape plan to the Americans, some resist, saying that they don’t believe it will work.   While the plan does seem unlikely, they are mere days from being discovered; their ship is nearly sunk, and a lot of screen time is devoted to debating the seaworthiness of the life raft.

And once the embassy staff finally agree to the plan, then it’s Washington D.C.’s turn to get cold feet.  They order Mendez to pull the plug on the plan and surrender the embassy staff to the Iranians.

Affleck’s Mendez then retires to his hotel room to decide whether to follow orders or push forward AGAINST INCREDIBLE ODDS.  What then follows is one of those Dark-Nights-of-the-Soul, where our tortured protagonist drinks straight from the bottle, stares at a fixed point on the wall and listens to moody seventies-era rock (insert “Apocalypse Now” reference here).

The problem for this scene is two-fold – dramatically,  the audience knows that Affleck is not going to fold and go home just yet, because Hollywood studio movies have three acts, not two.  Secondly, this scene displays in sharp relief the film’s greatest weakness.  While I am enthused by the emergence of Ben Affleck, the director, I am bored by Affleck, the actor.  His stone stare conveys no interior life, and every BIG EMOTIONAL SCENE lands with a big thud.   I wonder how this character could have been played by a more interesting actor, say with the smarmy squirm of Sam Rockwell or the bug-eyed self-loathing of Paul Giamatti?

But once Mendez makes the inevitable decision to proceed with the escape plan, the film gleefully jerks out of neutral back into drive.  The actual escape is all sweaty palms and bearded baddies glaring incredulously at forged visas.  While this should be well-worn territory, the direction infuses the scenes with a bracing originality, and it is an absolute white knuckler.

As Mendez and the Americans talk their way past the revolutionary guards, CIA officials, most notably Bryan Cranston who vibrates with intensity, try to aid them from Washington.

Quibbles aside, this film is an example of an all too rare Hollywood offering, the smart thriller.  The outcome of this film depends, not on motorcycle chases and gun fights, but on thinking on your feet and remembering your cover story.   Affleck continues to be one of modern film’s most intriguing directors.