We gondola-ed down from the Argo screening at the top of the mountain, but it took a while and by the time we got to the Masons theatre, the 4:30 pm screening of Dror Moreh‘s The Gatekeepers — one of the big buzz films so far — was sold out and locked down. So we sauntered over to a coffee cafe so I could write a little something about Argo.

Ben Affleck‘s period drama, set during the 1979 and ’80 Iran hostage crisis and based on fact, is a partly light-hearted, partly riveting drama about a kind of Mission Impossible scam about smuggling six American foreign-service workers who had taken shelter in Tehran’s Canadian embassy after the storming of the U.S. embassy and the taking of hostages.

An enterprising CIA guy named Tony Mendez (Affleck) devises a plan to hoodwink Iranian officials into believing that these six are filmmakers looking to use Iranian locations for a cheesy-sounding sci-fi film called Argo that is, of course, fake.

Argo starts out as a somber docu-drama, and then shifts into a kind of flip jocular vein (especially with the appearance of John Goodman and Alan Arkin as a couple of exploitation producers who assist Afleck in creating the backstory for the phony film), and then somber again and then sad and then revved again and then really, really tense.

In short, it’s smart and absorbing for first two-thirds to three-quarters, but it’s the suspenseful final act that brings it home.

Argo delivers superb period detail all the way through — technology, cars, clothes, haircuts, everything.

Affleck’s direction is clean and concise and doesn’t waste time or footage. The screenplay by Chris Terrio is aces. And the cast hits nothing but true notes — Affleck as Mendez, Bryan Cranston as his CIA boss, Arkin and Goodman as the producers, Victor Garber as Iran’s Canadian ambassador who protected the six when they were hiding in his residence, and Kyle Chandler as the late Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter‘s chief of staff.

Somebody tweeted “instant Best Picture contender!” after it was over. Really? Brilliantly suspenseful as the last act is, Argo, boiled down, is just a clever, well-jiggered caper film. Hats off but why does it have to be a Best Picture contender? A story well told and highly suspenseful, for sure, but there’s no thematic undertow, no metaphor tug — nothing more than “this is what really happened, and wasn’t it cool that the CIA pulled this off?” Yes, it was cool…but Best Picture contenders are about common chords and universality and shared emotional discovery, and that is not what Argo is up to.

Well, somewhat at the end because it’s nice to see a tough situation resolved through ingenuity and guts, but it’s not really a Best Picture contender for the ages. It’s a good, smart, satisfying adult thriller — why isn’t that enough?