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Photo Credit: Claire Folger

I know it got a bit rough about 10 years back, with that whole Bennifer thing in the tabloids. I say this as somebody who sat through Gigli and can attest that it wasn’t even the worst of the three Ben Affleck movies released in 2003. Plus, it was annoying hearing him carry on about the Red Sox all the time.

But everybody loves a comeback kid, and ever since making his directorial debut with 2007’s shockingly sturdy Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has career-rehabbed himself into a respectable filmmaker. (For argument’s sake, we’ll just admire how well-crafted The Town was and pretend for a minute that it wasn’t also very silly.) Affleck graduates to another level with Argo, a clean crowd-pleaser aimed at adults. In a bygone era, there would probably be at least 10 or 12 pictures like this a year, but since they don’t make them like they used to, let’s celebrate this white-knuckle thriller, based on a story so insane it could only happen in Hollywood.

It’s 1979, and the Iranian embassy is under siege. Hostages are taken, but a handful of American office workers escape to their Canadian neighbor’s basement. With riots in the streets, it’s only a matter of time before they’re found out. Enter Affleck’s Tony Mendez, a CIA pro who figures he can rescue the refugees by staging, of all things, a phony science-fiction movie shoot.

His superiors call it “the best worst-idea,” but nobody else has a better one, so before long we’re rolling with Affleck in the gilded age of 1970s Tinseltown, working with a very droll John Goodman (as Planet of the Apes makeup guru John Chambers) and the uproarious Alan Arkin (as a composite character molded from every gloriously tacky Hollywood stereotype) to polish one grandiose turd of a cover story.

Argo, named after this crummy sci-fi movie semifunded by the CIA, is extremely savvy entertainment, deftly blending showbiz satire with street-level suspense sequences. Affleck revels in grungy 1970s period detail, shooting on grainy film stock and letting the shag haircuts, countless cigarettes and awful mustaches do a lot of the talking.

There’s a tricky medley of tones going on here, like the lightweight Ocean’s Eleven–style Hollywood caper butting up against a squalid Middle Eastern insurrection. Argo’s editing is slick and propulsive, seamlessly melding such disparate elements with a confident swagger. It looks easier than it probably was, which is what makes it so impressive.

Affleck once again proves himself a whiz with actors who aren’t Ben Affleck. A murderer’s row of supporting players fill out Argo, with the aforementioned Arkin and Goodman doing their most playful work in years. (I could’ve watched an entire movie of these two old pros barking obscenities at one another.) They’re backed up by the always-reliable Bryan Cranston, plus brief but indelible turns from Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, Phillip Baker Hall and pretty much every other fantastic, under-utilized character actor working today.

The only speed bump here is the star/director himself, who—just as in The Town—can’t resist soulfully moping for the camera while granting himself iconic shots nicked from John Ford movies. As the taciturn Mendez, Affleck attempts to project a gravity that he doesn’t quite possess. You’ll find yourself wishing he’d farmed out the role to executive producer George Clooney, or somebody equally comfortable with long silences. As is, there are too many scenes of our star somberly drinking alone, staring into the distance.

Affleck also draws out the ending more than necessary, straying from the historical record in order to goose the audience along for the ride. No matter, as it’s a hell of a ride. Almost unbearably suspenseful while bordering on the preposterous, the climax plays like gangbusters with an audience that may feel just a smidge guilty afterwards.

Regardless, the first two-thirds of Argo are sleek, machine-tooled Hollywood craftsmanship at its most entertaining, positioning Ben Affleck as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. That is a sentence I never thought I’d write.

Argo 

Starring Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber and Kyle Chandler. Screenplay by Chris Terrio. Directed by Ben Affleck. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.