As recently as five years ago, Ben Affleck was a punch line in Hollywood. Back-to-back-to-back flops with Gigli, Jersey Girl, and Surviving Christmas were cementing his spot as a frequent subject in “what the heck happened with…?” discussions.

But then in the fall of 2007, his feature directorial debut Gone Baby Gone hit theaters– a tense, laser-sharp drama about a child abduction. It was followed in 2010 with the even-better The Town, and suddenly Affleck had not only shed his joke-worthy reputation he had emerged as one of the best directors in Hollywood.

If two’s coincidence, three’s a pattern, and with Argo Affleck definitively proves that he’s the real deal. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more nail-biting, white-knuckle, superbly-helmed film this year. It puts Gigli so far in the rearview mirror than Affleck can successfully disavow it altogether.

Set against the backdrop of the U.S. Embassy takeover in Iran in 1979, Argo focuses on the six Americans who escaped to the nearby house of the Canadian Ambassador, and of the CIA mission to smuggle them out of the country.

Agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatches an idea (“the best bad idea we have, by far”) to meet up with them and pretend they’re all part of a Canadian film crew doing location scouting in Tehran. He’ll forge passports and travel documents to make it seem like they were only there for a few days and that it’s now time to head back to Canada.

But first he has to create the fake movie (Argo) the crew is pretending to work on, and a call to his Hollywood make-up artist buddy John Chambers (John Goodman) gets the ball rolling.

Before long they have a producer, a script, a table read, an article in the trades, a poster, and storyboards– all for a movie that doesn’t exist. But that was the easy part. Once in Iran, Mendez is on his own, up against militants, the Revolutionary Guard, and a foreboding sense that death (or worse) is around every corner.

Affleck crafts Argo with all the skill of a seasoned vet (think Steven Soderbergh or Ridley Scott). The second half of the film could (and should) be shown in film schools to demonstrate the right way to ratchet up tension and suspense; if you’re not sitting on the edge of your seat for the better part of an hour, consult a physician immediately.

The script by first-timer Chris Terrio, though it’s a significantly sensationalized version of the real-life events, never feels phony in the moment. The ample humor (particularly in Hollywood and in the backrooms of the CIA headquarters) rings of clever satire and is a cathartic contrast to the life-and-death tightrope walk Mendez and company are teetering on a half a world away.

The actors, including Affleck, Goodman, and Alan Arkin as the Hollywood producer, are all first-rate, but it’s the supporting cast that pushes Argo over the top. Bryan Cranston turns in a wonderfully manic performance as Mendez’s superior, and the half-dozen relative unknowns (minus Tate Donovan) who play the six escapees convey just enough anxiety to make them perfectly believable.

A lot of credit also to Affleck’s production designer Sharon Seymour (who served the same role in Gone Baby Gone and The Town) for bringing a superbly authentic feel to Argo and making 1980 feel like a character in and of itself. From the opening titles straight through to the credits, there’s hardly an anachronism to be found. If you didn’t know better you would think Argo was a contemporary of All the President’s Men or Dog Day Afternoon.

This Affleck guy might just have a future in Hollywood after all.

5/5 stars