Does WB have an Oscar thoroughbred on its hands with Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo?’

TELLURIDE – Like my colleague Greg Ellwood, I attended yesterday afternoon’s “Sneak Preview” premiere of Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” Last year the spot — an unannounced screening for patrons of the festival and invited press — went to “The Descendants,” the year before, “Chico & Rita.” It’s not a typical spot for Oscar bait to bow, it just happened to fall that way the last couple of years. And it was a big winner this time around.

I found the film to be yet another step up for Affleck, who continues to grow as a filmmaker and surprise not just formally but with his adeptness at handling ensembles as well. And that’s what “Argo” is: an organic, finely tuned ensemble where no one really stands out from the pack. And that’s not a bad thing, particularly for a film that is very much about the efforts of the many.

The question, though, for the purposes of the season we’re about to launch into, is this: Does it have Oscar potential? And I think the answer, particularly judging by the reaction from the audience yesterday, is an unequivocal “yes.”

Greg’s review lays out the plot and history lesson of the thing, so feel free to check that out for those particulars. I’d like to get into some nuts and bolts here, though, and first and foremost is the tension Affleck mounts with this film.

I’ve never chewed my nails down like that in a screening before. The propulsive and at times artful editing by two-time Oscar nominee William Goldenberg (“The Insider,” “Seabiscuit”) is a big reason the film works so well. He deserves another notice for his work here, no question about it. But everything from the in-scene construction to the overall sense of pacing in the film is just outstanding, and it really brings everything home in a third act that’s even better than the rest of the film.

(And the crowd ate it up. Applause in the middle of the movie, constant “wow” and “outstanding” reactions outside the theater after the screening, etc.)

Rodrigo Prieto’s lensing also deserves some real recognition, a smooth hue to the enterprise, a slick but properly creative capturing of things. And the design of the film, from Sharon Seymour’s pitch-perfect production detail to, particularly, Jacqueline West’s period-nailing costume work, is equally deserving.

On the ensemble front, I think it’s the kind of thing where people will have their favorites. Bryan Cranston, for instance, is typically solid and more of a supporting anchor than most of the other actors.

Meanwhile, it’s true that Alan Arkin — as a Hollywood producer brought in to help cook up the fake movie that serves as a cover for getting six hostages out of harm’s way during the Iran Hostage Crisis — steals the movie when he’s on the screen. But he’s not on the screen a lot, and he shares plenty of it with John Goodman (as Academy Award-winning makeup artist John Chambers, who, as a civilian CIA assist, gets the whole ball rolling), who’s equally cheeky and fun. Together they really make up the “Wag the Dog” DNA of the film.

Which brings me to why I think “Argo” is sure to play for the Academy and the industry as a whole: it’s a story about how the film business came to the rescue and had a defining, albeit classified for decades, moment. It’s at once a send-up of and a thank you to Hollywood and all it’s sad, devilish charm. And that’s sure to resonate.

Mostly I’m just so happy to see Affleck continue to find his voice. He takes a few chances here, stretches his legs creatively (an opening narration sequence setting the scene over storyboards is an interesting, clever touch) and seems to be catching a confident stride. This after films like “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” already revealed a filmmaker who was ready to hit the ground running.

I also like that he didn’t try to overstate the heroism of his own character in the film. It’s not a big movie star performance and I get the hunch he very much wanted to step back and let the ensemble push the whole thing forward.

And that it does. The Screen Actors Guild should bite on an ensemble nomination. In addition to those mentioned above, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan, et al. are great, with nice accents from Zeljko Ivanek and Kyle Chandler, among others.

So chalk it up as, I feel, the first major Oscar play to come along this year. Films like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Moonrise Kingdom” have made their modest cases, but “Argo” really announces the arrival of the season.

We’ll see how Toronto audiences take to it next week.

“Argo” opens nationwide October 12.