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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Ben Affleck's new thriller, "Argo," chronicles a secret CIA rescue mission. The details were classified for years. And when they came to light, the operation sounded like something only Hollywood could come up with. Critic Bob Mondello says, there's a reason.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: 1979, the Iranian public's hatred for their U.S.-installed shah erupts when he leaves the country. A crowd grows around our embassy in Tehran - climbing the gates, taking dozens of Americans hostage.

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PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: (as himself) Actions of Iran have shocked the civilized world.

MONDELLO: Shocked the Canadian ambassador in Tehran, too, who finds himself secretly sheltering six escaped U.S. embassy workers in his residence. Now, how to get them out? The best idea the State Department's come up with...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

ZELJKO IVANEK: (as Robert Pender) What we'd like for this - are bicycles.

MONDELLO: ...involves pedaling 300 miles to the border, in the snow. The CIA's Tony Mendez has a slightly less-outlandish thought.

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BEN AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) I've got an idea ...

They're a Canadian film crew for a science-fiction movie ...

I fly into Tehran ...

We all fly out together, as a film crew.

MONDELLO: A quick hop to Hollywood, where a makeup guy - played by John Goodman - is helping him recast his six embassy clerks as a plausible film crew.

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JOHN GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) Here's your director.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Can you teach somebody to be a director, in a day?

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director, in a day. Look, if you're going to do this, you need a script; you need a producer.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Make me a producer.

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) No. You're an associate producer, at best. You need somebody who's a somebody, to put their name on it; somebody respectable...

MONDELLO: He's thinking...

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GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) ...with credits...

MONDELLO: ...slight squint...

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GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) ...who you can trust with classified information...

MONDELLO: ...face is falling...

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GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) ...who will produce a fake movie - for free.

MONDELLO: So he takes Tony to meet with just the guy - who's played by Alan Arkin, and who has his own doubts.

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ALAN ARKIN: (as Lester Siegel) You want to set up a movie, in a week. You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living. Then you're going to sneak 007, over here, into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal. And you're going to walk the Brady Bunch out of the most-watched city in the world.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Past about 100 militia at the airport. That's right.

MONDELLO: Sounds crazier with each retelling, no? But he agrees, so it's back to Washington for approval.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) What's wrong with the bikes again?

BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Jack O'Donnell) We tried to get the message upstairs.

PHILIP BAKER HALL: (as government official) You think this is more plausible than teachers?

CRANSTON: (as Jack O'Donnell) Yes, we do. One, there are no more foreign teachers in Iran.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) And we think everybody knows Hollywood people. And everybody knows they'd shoot in Stalingrad, with Pol Pot directing, if it would sell tickets...

AFFLECK: ...There are only bad options. It's about finding the best one.

HALL: (as government official) You don't have a better bad idea than this?

CRANSTON: (as Jack O'Donnell) This is the best bad idea we have, sir - by far.

HALL: (as government official) The United States government has just sanctioned your science-fiction movie.

MONDELLO: And the tough stuff begins. You can hear that the script is snappy. But the real accomplishment here is how Ben Affleck, who both stars in and directs "Argo," manages to segue from "Ocean's Eleven"-style repartee to pulse-pounding tension and back again. His CIA agent arrives in Tehran to find executed bodies swinging from construction cranes; cars on fire; mobs in the street; and six Americans who are both afraid to leave their hiding place, and sketchy on the aliases they have barely 24 hours to learn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What was the last movie you produced?

SCOOT MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) "High and Dry."

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Who paid for that?

MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) The CFDC.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your middle name? What's your middle name? What's your middle name?

MCNAIRY: (as Joe Stafford) Leon.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Shoot him. He's an American spy. Look, they're going to try to break you - OK? - by trying to get you agitated. You have to know your resume, back to front.

RORY COCHRANE: (as Lee Schatz) You really believe your little story's going to make a difference when there's a gun to our heads?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) I think my story's the only thing between you and a gun to your head.

MONDELLO: Affleck builds "Argo" to a heart-stopping finale, which is heightened a bit from what actually happened. But as the credits roll, he establishes just how artfully the film has blended truth and fiction by using words from President Jimmy Carter, and side-by-side photos of the real folks and the actors. By its final fade, "Argo" feels like more than a thriller, with real thrills and serious Oscar buzz. It feels like a window on events that led to the world that we live in now.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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