THE BLOG
03/11/2013 11:57 am ET Updated May 11, 2013

A Rabbinic Take on 'Argo'

The following review is part of the Kosher Movies project, in which Rabbi Herb Cohen gleans life lessons from the world of film.

Many years ago, I wanted to make myself more accessible to my students as principal of my school. At the time, I taught one or two literature classes but I wanted to feel connected to more of the students. The question: how to do this in an unobtrusive but effective way?

I took my cue from Frank Boyden, the late, revered headmaster of Deerfield Academy, a prestigious private high school in New England. Boyden moved his office to the school hallway. He did not wait for students to come to him. Instead, he was visible at every class change and used these face-to-face encounters to engage students in conversation about how the school day was going, about their plans for later in the day, about life in general. Boyden thought out of the box to come up with the right solution, and his educational strategies made Deerfield one of the most successful high schools in the United States.

Argo is all about thinking out of the box, about finding a solution to a problem that defies conventional analysis. It is Nov. 4, 1979, and militants have taken over the U.S. embassy as payback for the United States giving refuge to the recently deposed Shah. We learn that six Americans have found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The challenge: how to extract them from Iran without being discovered? Tony Mendez, an extraction expert at the CIA, has to devise a rescue plan in a matter of days. The out-of-the-box solution: create a fictitious movie company that wants to shoot a science fiction fantasy using Iranian locations, and then smuggle the Americans out of Iran on regular commercial aircraft under the guise of being movie professionals exploring location possibilities. The idea is preposterous; but it is the best option among a range of other bad choices, and so the ruse begins.

Mendez contacts John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist, who has previously worked for the CIA, who in turn connects him with film producer Lester Siegel. Together they establish a phony film company, publicize their preliminary work on the film, and successfully create the illusion of developing Argo, a science-fiction fantasy similar to Star Wars, to lend verisimilitude to their efforts. Meanwhile, the escapees inside the ambassador's residence are growing frantic at the possibility their hiding place will be revealed at any moment and they will be executed. Argo is realistic, tense and ultimately cathartic as it details the nerve-wracking and precise maneuvers that the trapped hostages will use to find their way to freedom.

Jewish tradition also encourages thinking out of the box. Looking at Talmudic discussions and arguments gives us a window into the creative thinking of the intellectual giants who populate the pages of this magnum opus. It is a place where we can observe firsthand the development of higher order thinking skills. Ethics of the Fathers, a centerpiece of Jewish wisdom, describes the intellect of a number of great Talmudic sages. It praises the serious student, who retains everything he learns, and it also lauds the one whose mind is a bubbling stream growing stronger and stronger each day, the master of innovation who can always come up with a new perspective on an age-old problem. Conventional wisdom is good, the Talmud suggests, but creativity also has its proper place in Jewish learning.

Argo reminds us that whenever we are faced with what we perceive to be an insurmountable problem, we should not give up and reconcile ourselves to abandoning our mission or goals. On the contrary, this is the time to use our mental potential to create new and innovative paradigms for success.

Rabbi Herb Cohen was a principal at Jewish high schools across America for three decades. He now resides in Israel and blogs weekly about the intersection of faith and film at KosherMovies.com.