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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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Even with these elisions and simplifications, Argo is never less than thrillingly realized. The movie’s painstaking art direction and design get the look and feel of 1970s Washington exactly right, just as they get the awful facial hair and ugly cars to a T—even before Argo moves on to its skin-crawling depiction of the waking nightmare that was Tehran after the fall of the shah. (In a great closing end-title sequence, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, production designer Sharon Seymour and art directors Peter Borck and Deniz Göktürk take deserved bows when the movie shows actual documentary footage and matches it to the movie’s meticulous re-creations.) There’s even a terrific bit in which a veteran CIA operative figures out a way to trick the White House operator into getting him on the phone with Carter’s chief of staff Hamilton Jordan (played eerily well, for those who remember Jordan, by Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights).

Credit for the movie’s look and feel and approach must go to Affleck, who is fast proving himself to be his generation’s successor to Clint Eastwood—a director whose work behind the camera may prove far more distinctive and memorable than his standing as a movie star. His performance here is nothing special, but this is an Oscar-worthy directorial achievement. Argo is his third attempt at directing, after Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and with the exception of some drippy domestic stuff designed, unnecessarily, to humanize his character, he does not take a false step.

Yet there’s still something not-major about Argo, something that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it might. This is a story about the good guys winning, a story about Islamist monsters being denied the blood they wished to spill—a nationalist story with a unique twist, because the American triumph it depicts had to be kept secret to give credit to the Canadians and to ensure the safety of the Americans still held in Iran.

But Affleck, a devotee of the leftist American counterhistory proffered by the egregious Howard Zinn, decided to frame the events in Iran, in an opening montage, as the deserved result of American imperialist malfeasance dating back to the removal of the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh from power in 1953. The movie treads lightly on this point afterward, and it certainly offers no exculpatory message about the Ayatollah Khomeini or his berserk followers. But this self-abnegating perspective does seem to play a role in keeping this superb movie limited to a minor key when it could have exploded into a glorious major.

There is no moment here that matches the impact of the sequence in Raid on Entebbe when the Israeli commando team quietly begins to sing the Hebrew song “Hinei Ma Tov” as they begin their rescue mission. The movie does not offer a translation—the lyrics are “how good, how pleasing it would be if we all could live like brothers”—but the sense of community among the team, and with those they will be attempting to save, is conveyed nonetheless.

Affleck doesn’t want to wave the flag, and in failing to do so, he loses the emotional wallop that could have made Argo a movie for the ages rather than the best fall release of 2012.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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