Maybe it's the influence of reality TV or the need to separate "real" from "virtual" in an increasingly digital age, but there's no question that the number of feature films "based on actual events" grows significantly with each passing year. Those who bother to count such things (and list them on the Internet) claim there have been more true stories committed to film since the year 2000 than in the entire century that preceded it. That's a big and sudden dose of reality, and one that hasn't always served the best interests of the movie-going public.
Though it bears that ubiquitous "actual events" tag, Argo arrives pretty much in a class by itself: a movie based on a true story that seems too good to be true. It would have been dismissed as hokey and unrealistic had screenwriter Chris Terrio made up the whole thing himself. But Argo is based on a memoir by former C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez called Argo: How the C.I.A. and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History. It tells how six U.S. diplomats — trapped and hiding in Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis — managed to escape the country by pretending to be a Canadian movie crew scouting locations for a low-budget knockoff of Star Wars. Directed with style and restraint by Ben Affleck, Argo makes for one satisfying night out at the movies.
Affleck also appears in the film as Mendez, the C.I.A. technical operations officer who had the Hollywood contacts required to manufacture a fake movie that would stand up to scrutiny by Iranian officials. As both director and star, Affleck maintains a light touch that never distracts from an economical and carefully constructed film. Like Ron Howard's Apollo 13, Argo creates real tension and keeps us totally engrossed in the rescue mission even though we know how things turn out. That represents a level of skill few suspected of Affleck when he began his career as director.
Providing comic relief are Alan Arkin, whose character is an amalgam of storied Hollywood movie producers, and John Goodman who plays real-life makeup artists John Chambers (Planet of the Apes), who loved to lend his talents in secret to the C.I.A. At Affleck's insistence, the ensemble of actors who play the self-imprisoned diplomats spent a solid week together before the shoot, living '70s style — no Internet or cell phones. The result is a subtle authenticity that permeates the film.
Argo's understated yet spot-on depiction of the late 1970s constitutes one of its primary pleasures. From shag carpet to bad haircuts, all the necessary detail is there. But it's all framed to remain in the background. And unlike so many of Hollywood's supposedly true tales, Argo isn't nearly as violent as its tumultuous setting would suggest. The rescue mission, after all, hinges on an effort to outsmart anti-American Islamic militants — not overpower them. There's a message in there somewhere. — KEN KORMAN