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.
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.
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.