Perhaps the biggest surprise in Argo, Ben Affleck's excellent new thriller about a covert rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis, is that it spends its middle stretch in caper comedy mode, whizzing our main character, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck), to Los Angeles to meet with some crusty old Hollywood guys to pitch a movie. You see, six foreign service workers escaped the American embassy in Tehran before it was sacked by revolutionaries and are now hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The Revolutionary Guard is close to figuring out that they're missing six potential hostages, so an evacuation is needed quickly. After tossing out several other equally ridiculous ideas, Mendez suggests disguising the six as a Canadian film crew scouting locations — they'll pretend to look around a bit and then Mendez will get them the hell out of there. This wacky, but real-life, plan requires a convincing backstory, meaning it has to really look like a sci-fi epic called Argo is actually in development, with producers, table reads, posters, storyboards, Variety coverage, etc. Watching Mendez and his film world conspirators, played with their usual weary sparkle by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, put all this nonsense together in service of something very literally lifesaving is a dichotomous delight. That Affleck handles this section with such deft, light footing while creating a larger film that is nerve-rattlingly tense is a major testament to his burgeoning talent as a director.

Filmed with a grainy, wandering camera and awash in earth-tone period detail, Argo, the real Argo, looks and sounds credible while also being a bit of a yarn. With a script by Chris Terrio, adapted from a 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman, the film certainly seems to take some creative licenses to ratchet up the tension — were people really so close to not answering a crucial phone call, was the timing of the escape climax really so harrowingly tight — but we believe in its earnest depiction of real-ish events nonetheless. That is because Affleck brings a particular lived-in humanity to the material. These are not flashy people running around performing superhuman stunts and talking tough to the bad guys. Both the stranded six and their quietly noble rescuers, whether chained to a desk at Langley or skulking around Tehran with a muted, saturnine sense of purpose, are regular people in rumpled clothing who are scared, confused, tired, and, again, scared. And the other side of the conflict isn't treated as a featureless horde of rabid monsters, with Affleck and Terrio generously giving us a little briefing on the revolution at the beginning of the film to help explain why these people were as angry, particularly at America, as they were. Argo is a very humane film, both hopeful and despondent about politics and people, and in that way feels urgently relevant to today despite its thirty-year remove.

As he did in his first two sturdy efforts behind the camera, the Boston-set crime dramas Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck exhibits admirable restraint in creating the moral landscape of this film, and he aids himself by working with actors who are adept with the subtleties of sighs and flinches, who can stumble into patches of either light or darkness with equal ease. When fellow actor turned director Clint Eastwood did his Boston crime picture Mystic River, we had the towering, bellowing Sean Penn keening with wild hair and Tim Robbins doing mumbling, stuttering stuff as a caricature of an emotionally stilted man. The appropriate grimness was there, but none of the locality, the necessary specificity. These were people operating on Shakespearean levels, swallowing up whole blocks of Southie with their rage and anguish. But in Affleck's two previous films, we had, for example, the quiet, deceptively wise hoodedness of Casey Affleck, and Jeremy Renner's thoroughly authentic Charlestown tough, all boyish mischief hardened by time and muscle. They fit the scope of their settings and stories, and thus helped create a more textured and honest movie experience. And, in The Town at least, we had Affleck himself, pulling in the reins on his earlier snappy, boisterous work as an actor and giving us someone pensive and withdrawn. As Mendez in Argo, Affleck turns in the same kind of unshowy, unselfish performance. Mendez isn't a talker until it's entirely necessary, and even then his speech is exacting and economical. Hidden behind a shaggy beard and big period collars, that old J.Lo yacht-dwelling Affleck swagger disappears, allowing only his innate intelligence and centeredness to shine through; we see what first endeared him to mainstream audiences long ago in Good Will Hunting. As Affleck grows as a director, he's also, quite excitingly, maturing as an actor. Who knew that, during the relative nonsense that was a decade of his career, Affleck would someday come to command such affectionate respect. It's a graceful, heartening Hollywood story. Not schmaltzy, because it was done with talent and humility instead of brashness.

In Argo, Affleck has surrounded himself with a sprawling company of great actors, among them the long-missed Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan doing good nervous work as two of the Houseguests (the CIA term for the escaped six) and the increasingly indispensable Bryan Cranston as Mendez's superior at the agency. Cranston is mostly the talk-and-walk strategy guy, but at key moments gently blooms with emotion. Affleck is smart to make time for these moments, each little tic or aside making the film ever richer and more credible. It's no wonder so many good actors — Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Željko Ivanek among them — signed up for small roles in this film; at the very least, they're allowed to act.

As to the plot particulars, I don't want to assume that we all know how the story ends, so I'll keep things fairly vague. Just know that when the film is not zipping around Hollywood, it is an ever-coiling knot of dread and suspense. And it is also, really, a rather sad film. There's a soft note of dejectedness ringing throughout, a tired and frustrated and solemn despair about what bad politics can do to good countries, and about the faceless civilians who are often tangled up and lost in these messes. There's a small scene toward the end of the film when the story stops to consider the effects of an Iranian citizen's involvement in this bit of espionage. Some might call it heavy-handed, but I found it just right, a small but effective totem that stands for an enormous history of conflict and struggle that's continued right up to today. Some also might complain that the Canadians' role in the rescue operation is heavily downplayed in the film, but as this is a rescue picture, an entertainment and not solely a documentarian dramatization, we do need to spend more time with the people moving around on the ground than with those sitting in place. The Canadians come off well in the film, silent angels of deliverance, while the Americans are the goofy but unexpectedly competent grunt work guys. It's a good enough symbiosis for a movie, even if it's not quite the real story.

Argo is a great spy thriller and a near-great drama. Filled to the brim with anxious moments and boasting a grand, palm-sweating, 30-minute-or-so climax, it's about the nerviest and smartest entertainment that Hollywood has produced this year. But it also hums more subtly with a somber resonance. There's a beauty to the story, one about people working together and using their miraculous minds to hatch a daring and ingenious plan, that does suggest a grain of hope in all this war-torn international madness. The awfulness is big and surrounds us. But sometimes, through sheer will and human compassion, we can dive into the fray and actually save something. Argo does not forgive or pardon anyone, American or otherwise. But it does celebrate individuals, and intellect, and the often hard-won power of doing what's right. If whole countries can't seem to get it together, at least, once in a while, a few of their citizens can. 

*****

There are likewise some glimmers of decency in playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh's second feature film Seven Psychopaths, a bloody and inventive comedy thriller that ought to make McDonagh an industry fixture while still maintaining his edgy, outsider cred. It's a brutal lark.

Quentin Tarantino is one of McDonagh's obvious inspirations, and like one of that genre master's films, Psychopaths has a complex momentum that drives a hard-charging story forward while also taking time for a few giddy diversions. The central story here involves Marty (Colin Farrell), a heavy-drinking Los Angeles screenwriter, and his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), a ne'er-do-well hustler who is, at the start of the film, making his living by stealing dogs and returning them days later to collect the reward. He's got a partner in this con, a zonked-out but kind older man named Hans (Christopher Walken), and they're making a tidy little bit of money. But wouldn't you know it that one day they steal the wrong dog, namely a shaggy, sad-eyed Shih Tzu named Bonny, who just so happens to be the beloved pet of a local gangster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Trouble is for Billy and company, Charlie really likes this dog. He's cruel and violent in most situations, but when it comes to his dog, he's a total sap.

That's one of McDonagh's trademark contradictions; he's a writer who likes stories about tough, scuzzy guys who reveal slashes of humanity to sudden, comic effect. In his first film In Bruges, what initially seemed like a fairly standard gangsters-on-the-run story slowly became a lot more, well, sentimental. All of those little prickly character revelations eventually added up to something more deeply felt. McDonagh is refreshingly not married to cynicism and irony; he feels things too. In that vein, Hans has a dying wife (Linda Bright Clay) whom he loves very much, Billy is desperate for true friendship and validation, and Marty is struggling with an alcohol problem and a sad, sneaking form of writer's block. These aren't cool, calm, collected Jules Winnfield types, they're lovable messes.

Unexpected character quirks aren't McDonagh's only trick in this film. The arch conceit of Seven Psychopaths is that it is, in some ways, a meta moviemaking-as-movie experiment in the vein of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. Marty is writing a script, also called Seven Psychopaths, whose plot gradually begins to mirror our movie's story — or is it the other way around? We are, in fact, introduced to seven psychopaths in the film, some of whom seem just figments of Marty's imagination, while others are actual parts of the main film's plot. It all blends and twirls in a Möbius strip that's either clever or cloying depending on your sensibilities. I found it pretty winning, in the same unexpected way that In Bruges packed a satisfying and strange emotional wallop. Seven Psychopaths has moments of true feeling as well, but it's a more cerebral affair than its predecessor.

This is McDonagh's first movie set in the United States, but it's not his first American story. His play A Behanding in Spokane (also starring Walken) ran on Broadway two years ago, and, if nothing else, proved that he maybe wasn't quite ready for American primetime. The cadence was strained, the themes a bit too well-worn or even cliche, and, most troublingly, there was a current of casual racism running throughout that read like a blundering miscalculation of American lingo and ideology. McDonagh perhaps saw Tarantino say the n-word in Pulp Fiction one too many times and figured that's just how things are done here. In this film, McDonagh could be seen as doing a bit of correcting or mea culpa-ing for his past work's ignorances and blindspots. He pointedly casts several black actresses (but still, sigh, gets an n-word in there), and, in a hilarious exchange between Walken and Farrell, addresses the lack of credible or substantial women characters in Marty's script, and thus in his own writing. The latter is a clever way to get out in front of potential criticism, though it might be better if he just handled the core issue at the inception rather than addressing it reflexively later. Clay's is really the only substantial female character in the story, with Olga Kurylenko and Abbie Cornish popping up briefly only to quickly disappear. McDonagh is making progress, but not that quickly, it seems.

But those problems are at least mildly addressed, which makes them easier to overlook in favor of what is otherwise a zestily crafted picture. Farrell is appealingly shy and soulful here, while Rockwell does his best version of himself, all idiosyncratic phrasing and sharp-tongued yammering. But it's Walken who really, well, walks away with the movie, playing yet another Christopher Walken character, but this time actually putting some thought and motivation behind it. He's a weirdo oddball, but he's also a real human being, with nuanced ripples of anger and sadness running across his face whenever he's not saying things in his much-imitated Walken squawk. It's nice to see Walken back swinging again. It helps that McDonagh really seems to know how to write for him, to tap into that dazed stammer when necessary, but to also pull something else out of it and past it. I'd be curious to see what McDonagh could do with Walken in a movie entirely devoid of guns and bloody jokes. It might be quite something.

Still, as a sharp but silly homage to McDonagh's idea of American movies, Seven Psychopaths hits many good notes. There's a storytelling motif that runs throughout that reminds me of McDonagh's countryman and fellow playwright Conor McPherson — throughout the film we are given little side stories that are told with striking visuals and the reverent, ritual hush of folklore. I hope McDonagh will continue to explore these more thoughtful or dramatic tendencies. All this quick-talking shoot-em-up stuff is a charming enough diversion, but underneath all that gleefully strewn blood and bile lies, I suspect, a mushier, wiser heart that it would be nice to see more of. It feels odd to say this about a movie as violent and funny as Seven Psychopaths, but my favorite parts were when it almost made me cry.