(CNN) -- We'll have to wait a couple more months, safely after the election, to see Kathryn Bigelow's film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty." But in the meantime, director and star Ben Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio have found a positive spin on one of the least auspicious episodes in American foreign policy, the Iranian hostage drama that probably doomed Jimmy Carter's bid for a second term in 1980.
The movie quickly and smartly fills in the back story, reminding us how Western powers propped up the monarchy in Iran until the Islamic revolution of 1979, a popular uprising that gave vent to anti-American fury in the region. Fifty-two U.S. citizens were captured in the American Embassy in Tehran -- but six escaped undetected in the melee and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The challenge then for the CIA: how to get them out from under the noses of the ayatollahs.
Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), an "exfiltration" specialist (who knew?) who doesn't think much of the State Department's plan to send in bikes and road maps. Challenged to come up with something better, he concocts an improbable scheme about a phony movie: posing as a Hollywood producer, he'll connect with the six under the guise of scouting locations. It's far-fetched, but that's the beauty of it. Who would make up something like that? Anyway it's the best bad idea they've got.
Artfully recreating the look and feel of '70s suspense films by accentuating the grain and resisting the impulse to blow stuff up every 10 minutes, Affleck has crafted a compelling middlebrow thriller that probably wouldn't have stood out from the crowd in that period, but which is easily one of the must-sees in 2012 -- a shoo-in for Oscar consideration.
It's a well-paced and gripping entertainment certainly, even if you might roll your eyes at the contrived race-against-the-clock climax. More unexpectedly, and winningly, Affleck opens up a second front, a very droll insider satire on Hollywood hubris when Mendez enlists a makeup artist and producer to beef up his cover story.
John Goodman and Alan Arkin work up a delicious comic double act, daintily skewering the rampant egomania of the movie business as well as its endless capacity for self-denial. "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit!" declares Arkin's Lester Siegel before reluctantly lending his name to a bottom-drawer sci-fi adventure script -- "Argo" -- which calls for a vaguely Middle Eastern cosmos.
It's the very opposite kind of movie to the one Affleck makes. There's nothing showy or spectacular about his filmmaking. He puts the emphasis squarely on story and situation. He may not probe his characters very deeply, but they're believable victims of dire circumstance. He also casts very well: Bryan Cranston as Mendez's CIA boss, Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador, Christopher Denham as the most skeptical and reluctant of the hostages. They're all absolutely on point.
Affleck himself turns in a quietly impressive movie star performance. Tony Mendez is a kind of anti-Bourne, comfortable with his anonymity, living off his wits, not his fists. Smart, courageous and modest -- that's a rare combination in a man, and in movies, too.