It's hard to know how to answer when someone asks, ''What movie should I see?''
I might like ''The Master,'' but I wouldn't recommend it to someone who likes their movies clear and linear with an ending that explains everything. I'm not going to recommend "Pitch Perfect" to the guy whose favorite actor is Jason Statham or a Sacha Baron Cohen comedy to a women who loves Jane Austen adaptations.
''Argo'' is one of those movies I would recommend to almost anyone without hesitation.
It's old-school, Hollywood moviemaking at its finest with a story that is tense, gripping and funnier than expected. The fact that it's largely true makes it even more amazing. Director Ben Affleck, who already proved his talent behind the camera with ''Gone Baby Gone'' and ''The Town,'' moves into the top tier of filmmakers with ''Argo.''
Anyone older than 40 remembers the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-80, when the U.S. Embassy in that country was overrun by demonstrators and more than 60 Americans were taken hostage. They remained in captivity for 444 before being released on Jan. 20, 1981.
A hazier memory is the six Americans who escaped the embassy during the initial siege and hid out at the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). ''Argo'' tells what happened to them, a story that remained classified until 1997.
STARS: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Rory Cochrane and Christopher Denham.
STORYLINE: Based on a true story, the CIA hatches an elaborate plot to free six Americans trapped in Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-80.
DIRECTOR: Ben Affleck
RATING: R R for language and some violent images.
Government officials, worried that a high-profile failure could be more damaging than letting the hostages be discovered, have limited options and several bad ideas (like sneaking bicycles and maps to them and hoping they can navigate 100+ miles of mountainous terrain in winter).
Tony Mendez, a CIA ''exfiltration'' expert, comes up with the best bad idea they have: he will enter Iran as a Canadian film producer and will try to exit the country with the six Americans (played by Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Rory Cochrane and Christopher Denham) posing as the rest of his preproduction crew. To fool Iranian guards and government officials stationed at the airport, many of whom were educated in the United States, it will take more than fake passports.
Mendez, a film producer (Alan Arkin) and an Academy Award-winning effects artist (John Goodman) find a script (a sci-fi tale called ''Argo''), create storyboards, stage press events and get coverage in trade publications like Variety to create the paper trail necessary to create a credible backstory.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio avoid the inherent pitfalls in the story - a significant chunk of the movie is white guys with bad facial hair sitting around talking - at every turn, from the graphic novel-style illustrations in the opening sequence that provide the needed Iranian history to the way it uses humor, camera movement and music (particularly Led Zeppelin's ''When the Levee Breaks'') to add energy to those dialogue-heavy scenes. And considering how entangled the U.S. remains in the Middle East, the movies feels contemporary even when the clothes and haircuts remind us it isn't.
By design, Affleck is flashier behind the camera than in front of it. His Mendez is intense and earnest, a man who realizes the best way to earn the confidence of people who are entrusting their lives with him is to exude a calm exterior.
While ''Argo'' seems destined to attract a slew of Academy Award nominations, it's best shot at acting recognition comes Arkin's Lester Siegel. He gets many of the scripts best lines skewering Hollywood and he delivers them with the right mix of movie-biz bravado and cynicism.
If it hadn't taken nearly 20 years for this CIA mission to be declassified, ''Argo'' is the kind of movie that Sidney Lumet (''Dog Day Afternoon,'' ''Network,'' ''The Verdict'') might have made in 1980.
And as incredible as ''Argo'' is, it kind of makes me wonder what other great stories still are classified.