Iran 1979: then President Jimmy Carter faced the worst crisis of his presidency, when Iran went all blooey over the west’s refusal to return their longtime dictator, the Shah of Iran. The Shah, suffering from cancer, had fled to the United States for asylum. When we refused to send him back, the Iranian Tea Party’s religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, sent his religious mobs to storm the U.S. Embassy. Fifty-two of them were taken hostage and imprisoned for 444 days and released just as Ronald Reagan was taking office.

Six of the employees smartened up early on when they saw the Farsi handwriting on the wall. They managed to make it to the streets, and after being denied sanctuary in several other embassies, our good neighbor to the North, Canada, under the leadership of the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor, (Victor Garber) took them in and hid them as visiting Canadians.

Here they stayed for three months, while the CIA and state department tried to find a way to get them off the streets, before the mobs found and lynched them. This then, is the story of how one man, with the help of Hollywood, came to the rescue.

A CIA freelance rescuer, one Tony Mendez, came up with the idea of inventing a fake movie company, to set boots down in Iran, on the pretense of shooting a space-age movie. The idea was to disguise the six survivors as producer, director, writer and assorted studio people. The next move would be to run them through the streets as technicians on some location shots, and then get them on board a Swiss Air plane to safety.

Mendez called on an old Hollywood friend, John Chambe, (John Goodman) the make-up master who created all the masks for “Planet of the Apes,” to help him conjure up a scenario for the fake movie. The team created posters, cast it with extras, and actually bought a worthless script called “Argo” that is a rip off of “Star Wars.”

With Chambers in tow and with the reluctant blessings of the CIA who had no better idea, and with a down-on-his-luck cynical producer (Alan Arkin) who epitomizes every aging last-eneration producer in Hollywood, “Argo,” the biggest con hustle in the history of movies, was born.

“Argo” is probably the best thing Affleck has done, and it sits him squarely at the top of Hollywood’s A-list directors. I’m not a fan of Affleck, and even in this, there is no evidence that he will ever break out the way his partner Matt Damon did in comedy and drama, but who cares? It’s clear that from now on everyone’s going to want him on the other side of the camera.

The script by Chris Terrio is a perfect blend of suspense and comedy. Terrio gives Goodman and Arkin the best comedy zingers. “It’s Hollywood,” Goodman says, “You can teach a rhesus monkey how to direct.”

Television’s baddest good guy, Bryan Cranston, is Affleck’s back-up guy in the inner circles of the CIA, who in the end, dashes from room to room to save the six Americans from possibly being beheaded in the public square if caught.

“Argo” starts big, keeps getting bigger and never stops. No one in the audience is even allowed to think of going back for a popcorn refill. One missed clue, one missed phone call, and people will die … horribly. This is a true story, and Affleck does juice up the facts for the finale, but even those of us who know the history, are still hanging onto the seat in front of us. This is a mouth-manicure thriller with a strong pulse that sucks all the oxygen out of the theatre. Affleck, taking a few liberties with the actual last moments, skillfully builds the tension into the very last seconds, so that all the pacemakers in the audience start to vibrate.

“Argo” is a popcorn movie with extra butter, and it’s about time we got one.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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