"Argo" and director Ben Affleck are receiving raves from the critics, with many predicting the Iranian hostage thriller could be a major contender come Oscar time.
Inspired by a true story and set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the film centers on the CIA's attempts to extract captured diplomats from the Middle Eastern country by posing as a Canadian movie crew. The film, which opens Friday in select cities, co-stars Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
Affleck directs and stars in the picture, and critics lauded him for expertly handling the behind-the-camera work and for his performance as a harried spy on a daredevil mission. The film has scored a dazzling 93 percent "fresh" rating on the critics aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.
Writing in TheWrap, Leah Rozen called the film a smart "thrill-ride" that's also a "crowd pleaser."
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"Let’s just say that the movie’s final section is so nail-bitingly tense, thanks to a skillful combination of acting, writing and crosscutting, that it puts Affleck in the big leagues as a director," Rozen writes.
Rozen's one complaint was that Affleck would have been better served to hand over the starring duties to another easy-on-the-eyes actor, like the film's co-producer George Clooney.
In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis also lauded "Argo" for mixing brains with thrills and for evoking such bygone '70s thrillers as "Three Days of the Condor." "In the end, this is a story about outwitting rather than killing the enemy, making it a homage to actual intelligence and an example of the same," Dargis writes.
Roger Ebert also had both feet firmly planted in the "it's terrific" circle, lavishing plaudits on the film for its deftly choreographed scenes of tension and intrigue.
"The craft in this film is rare," Ebert writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. "It is so easy to manufacture a thriller from chases and gunfire, and so very hard to fine-tune it out of exquisite timing and a plot that's so clear to us we wonder why it isn't obvious to the Iranians. After all, who in their right mind would believe a space opera was being filmed in Iran during the hostage crisis? Just about everyone, it turns out. Hooray for Hollywood."
Even Anthony Lane, the New Yorker's often-savage critical voice, had nothing to offer but praise — although he could not resist a few barbs at Affleck's past cinematic transgressions.
"It makes for a good movie, and further proof that we were wrong about Ben Affleck," Lane writes. "Few of us, watching 'Armageddon' and 'Pearl Harbor,' could see a way out, or back, for an actor so utterly at the mercy of his own jawline. Did he flinch at a future composed of all-American strivers, each more earnest than the last, or had he always been nipped by the directing bug?"
The one naysayer in the bunch was Richard Corliss. It's interesting to note, in fact, that the veteran Time critic was one of the few reviewers not to break out in superlatives when "The Master" debuted last month.
Corliss acknowledged "Argo" was likely to be awards-bait, but he was unconvinced that the film was more than a competent diversion. "Argo is a solid but very ordinary film with patriotic and inspirational elements — which is to say that, yes, the Academy should probably save Affleck an aisle seat next Feb. 24," he writes.
"In terms of quality, though, Argo is just so-so," Corliss adds.