BEN AFFLECK'S entertaining "Argo" belongs to the "not on my watch" school of rescue-drama cinema.
It's a close cousin to "Apollo 13," the fact-based story of a potential disaster turned into a rearguard, seat-of-the-pants triumph by competent professionals.
This one centers around a CIA man named Tony Mendez (Affleck) called in during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis to rescue six American embassasy workers hiding out at the home of the Canadian ambassador.
If found, they will likely be executed as spies. Their hiding place is on the verge of being exposed, and the only existing White House plan to slip them past the fanatical militant Iranian/Islamist police state involves a bicycle tour.
Enter Mendez, a legendary specialist in the "extraction" of "assets" - he rescues people. He devises his own plan: He'll fly in as the Canadian producer of a sci-fi movie called "Argo" and fly out with the six Americans posing as his Canadian crew. The plan is sold to the Carter administration on the basis that it's "the best bad plan we've got."
The line typifies the movie's ample sense of humor, and my one quibble with the movie is that it never really reconciles the two strands of plot and tone: the tense deteriorating "Lifeboat" dynamics of the endangered embassy refugees, and the frequently comic story of a CIA man creating a fake movie in Hollywood.
It's in Hollywood that the movie feels most at home. The only way Mendez's goofy plan works is if his pretend movie seems real, so he contracts with a real movie producer (Alan Arkin) and special-effects guy (John Goodman) to make it look legit - there is a script, actors are hired, there is a table reading, and stories of the "Star Wars" ripoff are placed in the trade papers.
Thus fortified with fake facts, Mendez flies into Iran with six phony passports and briefs the incredulous embassy workers on his flimsy plan. They aren't thrilled, but come to see the dangerous gambit as their only hope of getting out of locked-down Iran alive.
We know how it ends, but Affleck ("The Town") amps up the tension with his command of thriller dynamics, and the final moments at the Tehran airport are suitably tense.
The movie also has the novelty of CIA man as hero and works as a nod to all of those who serve as by-definition unsung heroes in the clandestine service (Bryan Cranston is Mendez's no-nonsense, get-stuff-done boss).
On the other hand, "Argo" is not blind to agency flaws. In one of the movie's more trenchant moments, a valuable Iranian ally is shown leaving her country to find refuge in a safer place - Iraq.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at philly.com/keepitreel.