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REVIEW: Ben Affleck's Towering Creative Achievement Thus Far Is 'Argo'

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Ben Affleck can actually act - that's old news.

Beside his equally talented Boston pal, Matt Damon, he acquitted himself impeccably in 'Good Will Hunting' and, before that, there was the evocative 'Chasing Amy'.

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Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston star in 'Argo'

What we'll call "The Dip" - that period of time when he found himself the fodder of tabloid attention ('Gigli') and chasing the blockbuster dollar (P'earl Harbour'), where all creative integrity must have felt as if was slipping through his fingers like Californian sand - really didn't last that long. And since then there have been his confidence-inspiring strides behind the camera, directing his brother In Gone Baby Gone and Jeremy Renner to an Oscar nomination in The Town.

Nonetheless, the certainty of touch in Argo is astonishing, in that it harks back to a bygone age - yes, the glorious seventies - when storytellers were all powerful in the industry, before films had to have numbers on the end of them, preferably not the number one, to secure any kind of distribution deal.

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Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent his boss (Bryan Cranston) can't always pin down

As well as directing himself and co-stars John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Tate Donovan, Affleck is central to the screen action in this so-bizarre-it's-actually-true tale. He plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent charged with bringing home safely six Americans trapped in Iran, immediately after the Revolution of 1979. As well as the hostages everyone knew about trapped in the US Embassy, there were six officials who got out of the building but were left cowering under the brave protection of the Canadian Ambassador.

How the CIA got them out is the stuff of dramatic adventure, with Mendez masquerading as a film producer scouting for locations in the Middle East. As if... but it really happened. The race to get them safely beyond the reaches of their Iranian scouts is properly tense, and I learned more about the recent political history of Iran in the first five minutes than in 20 years of watching the news. Saying that, this background, once provided, is laid to rest for the far less chest-beating exercise of telling a dashing yarn where we're rooting for the Americans purely because they're the ones we get to know and worry about.

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John Goodman and Alan Arkin provide the light relief, but also the alibi, in 'Argo'

It is a testament to Affleck's assured touch that the film manages to accomodate many light-humoured pokes at the Hollywood system - which is where Goodman and a scene-stealing Arkin come into their own - within a more serious, pounding whole, redolent of the best of the 1970s/very early 1980s political thrillers that have endured - think of 'The Year Of Living Dangerously', 'Three Days of the Condor', 'All the President's Men'... it's up there with all those, no doubt helped by Cranston's remarkable resemble to a young Henry Fonda and his - no surprises here - first-class supporting role.

If it were those days again, this film would be your average satisfying trip to the cinema, what audiences came to expect and enjoy. Heralding it as Affleck's masterpiece is perhaps more revealing of the paucity these days of cracking good tales available to high-price-paying popcorn munchers. But if its success once again proves there is a market for cinema-goers without accompanying computer games, and encourages more films not franchises to fill the screen, then Ben Affleck can only be congratulated for an extremely impressive creative achievement, never mind the era.

MORE: Click here for our Exclusive Featurette on Argo

Argo is in UK cinemas from today. Watch the UK trailer below...