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Escape from Tehran

A good movie might have been great without the polemics.

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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The new Ben Affleck film—an efficiently told piece about a crazily brilliant CIA operation to get six Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis more than three decades ago—could almost have been a docudrama made for network television in the early 1980s, except that the rescue mission it depicts was classified and remained a secret until 1997. Which is to say, Argo is kind of a little movie that could easily fit on an old 19-inch color television. And in a different age, it might have worked better on television. But there’s something wonderful about the fact that it’s right up there on the big screen at a time when an adult looking for something to hold his attention at the movie theater is almost certain to come away disappointed. 

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez

Claire Folger/ Warner Bros

Not this time.

The movie Argo most closely resembles is Raid on Entebbe, the understated behind-the-scenes story of the daring Israeli rescue of the airline passengers who were hijacked and taken to Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1976. Raid on Entebbe aired on NBC in 1977, and it remains the best fact-based television film ever made. Its verisimilitude and painstaking eye for detail contribute to the overwhelming force of Raid on Entebbe’s final half-hour: You know as you’re watching it that the mission was a success, but your heart is lodged in your throat and the passengers’ final escape results in a shocking flood of grateful tears.

Much the same thing happens when you watch Argo, which tells a true story even more unlikely than the one in Raid on Entebbe. When, in November 1979, six of the employees from the American embassy in Tehran manage to escape as it is being overrun by the radicals who would take 52 remaining Americans hostage for 444 days, they find refuge at the residence of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. They have to be extracted before the Iranians figure it out, and the task falls to Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a clandestine CIA officer who specializes in “exfils” (short for “exfiltration”).

Might they pose as teachers when there are no more Canadian teachers in Iran? Or as agricultural specialists when there is snow on the ground? There seems to be no workable plan until Mendez catches a glimpse of a Planet of the Apes movie on television and is seized with an idea: What if the six pose as location scouts for a Canadian science-fiction film?

He enlists the help of an Oscar-winning makeup artist named John Chambers (John Goodman), who has aided the CIA in the past. Chambers, in turn, recruits a veteran producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, who is a complete joy playing the only wholly invented character in the movie), and they set up a phony production company, rent office space, buy a lousy script, and have a public reading of it covered by Variety.

Then it’s time to put the plan into play.

This being a movie, Affleck (as director) and screenwriter Chris Terrio simplify the tale in many ways and kick up the melodrama in others, at least if the tale told in the 2007 Wired article from which the movie springs is accurate. For example, the Hollywood stuff we see, zippy and hilarious though it is, is actually less colorful than the reality: The fake production generated real excitement, and the phone at the phony production office rang off the hook for months with eager jobseekers hoping to get in on the nonexistent movie.

And the story of the extraction makes the six Americans in Tehran seem far more passive than they were in actuality, in part to boost the heroics of Affleck’s character. The six didn’t just escape the embassy, but took heroic countermeasures to elude detection—and were the ones who told the State Department that they had to be removed lest their presence become a danger to their Canadian hosts and the American hostages.

Meanwhile, Terrio’s wisecracking and whip-smart screenplay (his first) features a portrait of Carter administration shenanigans that, while it certainly gladdens the heart of this old Reagan speechwriter, seems to have overstated the degree of conflict over the mission.

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