The List

Argo: Which cast member out-acts the rest?

The new historical thriller, a virtual lock for Oscar glory, features so many strong performances that the Academy may face some tough decisions

Argo — this weekend's new thriller directed by Ben Affleck — has drawn almost universal critical acclaim. Based on the true story of a bizarre 1980 CIA plot to extract Americans from Iran under the cover of a fake science-fiction movie, it's widely considered a lock for a Best Picture nomination at this year's Academy Awards. But Argo is also getting talked up for its potential to dominate the acting categories. Its massive ensemble cast, packed with beloved character actors, offers no shortage of strong, Oscar-worthy performances. Who's leading the Argo pack?

1, Ben AffleckAs extraction specialist Tony Mendez — "a steel-nerved CIA agent turned improbable modern-day Moses" — Ben Affleck delivers "his finest screen performance to date," says Lou Lumenick at The New York Post, anchoring the film with a confident, subdued performance. Impressively, Affleck helmed Argo, too, acing the film's "nail-biting thrills" as its lead actor and director simultaneously. He's already getting major buzz as a best actor contender.

2. John GoodmanTurning to supporting roles, Goodman is "perfect" as real-life Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers, who collaborated with Mendez on the plan, says Roger Moore at the Charlotte Observer. Argo's Hollywood scenes could have felt too cliched or corny if they weren't anchored by a strong performance, and Goodman is just the actor to play a "jaded old pro, full of cracks about a town filled with liars, frauds, and no-talents," who finally gets the chance to use his skills for something truly meaningful.

3. Alan ArkinArkin's performance as Lester Siegel, a composite character based on several real-life film producers, is "comic perfection" with "deliciously cynical line readings," says Peter Travers at Rolling Stone. He injects comic relief into a movie that — understandably, since it's based on the Iranian hostage crisis — could have been almost unbearably tense. Arkin himself seems suitably impressed by his mastery of a composite role: "I had to play four people at the same time. You ever try doing that? It's not easy," says the actor in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

4. Bryan CranstonIn a relatively small but "crucial part," the Breaking Bad star plays Affleck's droll CIA contact, says Edward David at Indie Wire, his "sole lifeline to the U.S." Cranston's role isn't as flashy as Goodman's or Arkin's, agrees Gregory Ellwood at HitFix, but he shines; if Argo connects with moviegoers the way it has connected with critics, "don't be surprised if Cranston's name increasingly comes up in the best supporting actor conversation."

Consensus: Affleck is a strong bet for a best actor nod, while Goodman, Arkin, and Cranston could find themselves duking it out for slots in the supporting-honors nomination list — with Arkin perhaps having the edge.

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