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Ambitious 'Argo' one of year's best films

Amovie about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis probably doesn't sound like it would be a laugh riot — or should be — but that's just one of the many ways in which “Argo” is a glorious, gripping surprise.

Directing his third feature, Ben Affleck has come up with a seamless blend of detailed international drama and breathtaking suspense, with just the right amount of dry humor to provide context and levity. He shows a deft handling of tone, especially in making difficult transitions between scenes in Tehran, Washington and Hollywood, but also gives one of his strongest performances yet in front of the camera as the film's star.

It's exciting to see the confidence with which Affleck expands his ambition and scope as a filmmaker. His first two movies, “Gone Baby Gone” (2007) and “The Town” (2010), were both smart and suspenseful, but both were intimate crime thrillers set within the familiarity of his hometown of Boston. “Argo” reveals his further mastery of pacing and storytelling, even as he juggles complicated set pieces, various locations and a cast featuring 120 speaking parts.

And the story he's telling sounds impossible, but it's absolutely true (with a few third-act tweaks to magnify the drama). Finally declassified in 1997, the daring rescue mission depicted here still didn't make a huge splash even then. (Chris Terrio's intelligent script is based on a selection from “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez and the Wired magazine article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman.) It's a fascinating tale of bravery, international friendship and plain old moxie, one that's serious-minded but crowd-pleasing.

Affleck cleverly foreshadows the Hollywood angle with a prelude told in storyboard form, efficiently providing background on the mounting dissent in Iran over the U.S.'s sympathetic stance toward the Shah. When protestors stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — recreated here frighteningly, viscerally — 52 people became hostages for the first of 444 days. But six employees sneaked out a back door and sought refuge at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).

They became known as “the houseguests,” and with each passing week they spent there, their safety was in increasing danger. Surely their absence would be discovered, with deadly consequences not just for them but for their Canadian allies. Someone had to get them out ... but how?

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A fascinating tale of bravery, international friendship and plain old movie (AP)

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