Affleck and the Argonauts

A very ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN image.

ARGO is a terrific thriller — Ben Affleck is a very competent director, and the script by relative newbie Chris Terrio organizes the suspense-building elements expertly. The performances are uniformly fine, with Affleck impressively un-starry, and Alan Arkin and John Goodman bringing the raw, undiluted entertainment.

Fiona loved it, I admired and enjoyed it, and then I got into a Twitter debate with Mark Cousins, who was impressed by the filmmaking but disgusted by the portrayal of Iran.

Here’s his article, which is recommended.

I basically take all his points. But the answer to the question, “Why this story? Why now?” has to in part be that the story involves Hollywood. I can’t imagine Hollywood passing up the chance to do a story in which Hollywood old-timers help rescue Americans from Iran. Hollywood practically invented narcissism, didn’t it? I’m sure if you check the records, you’ll find that Narcissus was Californian. And it’s a story about Iran in which Americans are in danger and other Americans rescue them. It’s a tradition, sadly, that Hollywood films about the rest of the world nearly always view it through the eyes of American characters. Oliver Stone made three films about Vietnam, and the two successful ones had American protagonists and no major Vietnamese characters. Did HEAVEN AND EARTH flop because the lead character was Vietnamese, because the actor playing her wasn’t a star, or because Stone couldn’t get into the head of a Vietnamese woman sufficiently to tell her story compellingly?

This, however, does fit in with one of Mark’s larger points, that the movie has followed the path of the commercially appealing storyline rather than the dictates of political conscience. Liberal Affleck has arguably made a film which ties in to the hawkish attitude towards Iran currently being sold to us. I think he has a point here.

I’m less certain of his criticism of the directorial technique: hand-held for Iran and tripod and dolly for America? Actually, the US scenes seem to depend largely on Steadicam for their movements, some of them very dynamic and interesting. And I don’t think the different techniques carry the moral judgement Mark seems to find: the handheld is clearly meant to evoke news footage, much of which Affleck quotes, and indeed also to create a feeling of edginess and danger, essential if we’re to feel anxiety for the trapped Americans. The characters in the US are safe and those in Iran are in constant danger: that seems a fair enough reason for a varied camera style, and it makes no overall judgement on the Iranian people, who are shot with the same techniques as the American embassy people.

I would accept, however, that the film’s attempts NOT to demonize all of Iran, while earnest, are insufficient. Seeing news footage of moronic yanks screaming for blood SHOULD make us reflect on current attitudes, and the inclusion of a sympathetic Iranian housemaid whose heroism is never noticed by the western characters is a step in the right direction, but feels tokenistic. Having her leave the country for welcoming Iraq is a somewhat crude irony, and leaves the viewer free to assume that any liberal-leaning Iranians must have packed their bags and emigrated by now, abandoning the country to rabid radical Islamic hysterics. The best gesture is making the angry old guy in the bazaar a bereaved father with a legitimate grudge against the west: a jeopardy-raising hostile native gains a bit of sympathy and respect. But I tend to agree that such welcome little gestures don’t go far enough in humanizing the Iranian people in the film.

Mark’s points about his own experiences in Iran are welcome — but it’s worth mentioning that he wasn’t there in 1980. Neither was I, and neither was Affleck, but we’ve seen the news footage. That footage only presents one aspect of the country, but I’m fairly convinced that it’s an aspect that did exist at the time. The revolution was a new thing, and it undoubtedly had a lot of enthusiastic supporters, who would have been more visible to an outsider than the regular people going about their business.

Joining the tweeting was Ehsan Khoshbakht, who brought me up to speed on the film’s many inaccuracies. These are harder to argue with because they’re matters of fact, not politics. The only way of dismissing them would be to say “It’s only a movie, it doesn’t matter,” which I’m not about to do. It’s interesting to speculate on the reasons the film distorts history, though, particularly in the animated intro that sets up the political backstory.

Ehsan’s tweets –

1) Mosaddegh wasn’t really secular. He couldn’t be at that time.

Here I’d say the film is guilty of distortion as it seeks to simplify, trying to find a way to contrast the outgoing leader with the later Ayatollah. But emphasizing this (false) distinction seems unnecessary, since you have the “secular” Shah in between anyway.

2) Bathing in milk was probably borrowed from yellow journals but of course they want to “justify” the story. The Queen was a part of corruption, but unlike what they claim nothing scandalous ever leaked about her life and she was the one who founded Kanoon which led to the emergence of filmmakers such as Kiarostami.

The movie seems to be uncritically recycling news gossip planted by Mosaddegh’s enemies in the run-up to the MI5 and CIA-sponsored coup that ousted him. Very bad.

3) They mention tortures, but don’t say SAVAK was trained by CIA & Mossad, their methods, still in practice.

That would be a good thing to mention, but I can understand the time constraints that caused them to omit it. I give them points for the intro, since they didn’t NEED to say that the whole mess was started by the CIA overthrowing the elected prime minister. In a story where the CIA play the role of heroes, that’s kind of an impressively complex stance to take.

4) Film never talks about the Marxist roots of the revolution (Islamic phase was a hi-jacking in last min).

This is kind of pure backstory, and wouldn’t alter the events in the film. While it’s fair to say that if you’re going to give a potted history lesson, it should include pertinent facts like this, but Affleck’s intro is constructed for a specific purpose — to set up the story we’re about to see.

5) and the US never gave any asylum to Shah (which could have caused, according to the film, the attack on the embassy); a film about saving allies & friends in which their most important ally & best friend, Shah, a dying man, wasn’t given the asylum or wasn’t saved. It was a turning point in modern politics because many of these so-called allies knew when the time comes they can’t trust the US.

He adds a helpful timeline via email ~

16 January 1979: The Shah leaves Iran and goes to Egypt. A very warm welcome from Anwar El-Sadat. [nobody attacks the Egyptian embassy in Tehran, nor the Morrocean embassy or Mexican embassy.]
22 October 1979: Carter reluctantly allows the dying Shah into the States to undergo a surgery (he had cancer). Shortly after that he was moved to a military hospital in Texas.
4 November 1979: Hostage crisis begins
15 December 1979: Shah left the States and went to, first Panama, and then Egypt again.
27 July 1980: Shah dies in exile.
20 January 1981: hostages were released

This seems crucial, and a bad-faith, cunning and deliberate distortion to make the CIA look good — yes, they may have been bad when they helped overthrow that other guy, but for present purposes the CIA are the cavalry riding to the rescue. (I can imagine Jimmy Carter not wanted to give succour to a torturing dictator, but the negative consequences of that decision could be considerable: promising safe havens to murdering scum is often the only way to get them out of office.)

The overall message is that ARGO, like any Hollywood film dealing with things that actually happened, should be approached armed with a sheaf of facts. It’s easy to spot the scenes where tension has been hyped up by improbably dramatic contrivance (very effectively), but not so easy to guard against the movie’s re-writing, re-casting and re-cutting of history.

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10 Responses to “Affleck and the Argonauts”

  1. I have several problems with Argo given the simplification to the historical events and the changes — if I recall, the movie implies the hostage takers were just protestors who happened to jump the fence, when in reality it was a student group expecting a sit in type of situation and the protestors at the gate were cheering them on, not necessarily part of student group.

    That said, I think it’s relatively accurate to say these groups were angry with the U.S. and CIA support of the Shah, and his stay in the US for medical treatment was a possible cause. Wikipedia notes the anger Carter’s toast to the Shah in 1977 caused. A brief glance at Wikipedia seems to bear this out: “The Shah’s admission to the United States intensified Iranian revolutionaries’ anti-Americanism and spawned rumors of another U.S.-backed coup and re-installation of the Shah” and “His prolonged stay in the U.S. was extremely unpopular with the revolutionary movement in Iran…There are claims that this resulted in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran…”

    The Shah wasn’t moved to Texas until several weeks later, and the source on Wikipedia from Dec 3, 1979 specifically states the hostage takers said, “If the shah leaves the United States for another country, we will try the hostages.”

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1129&dat=19791203&id=3wMOAAAAIBAJ&sjid=-W0DAAAAIBAJ&pg=5084,147980

    I don’t have the film in front of me of course, but I seem to recall the entire intro painting the US and CIA as idiots who caused most of the problems in the first place. The discomfort was palpable enough that the large-ish audience here in Manhattan, KS was completely silent with the occasional soft snort of what sounded like derision. By the end of the film, the CIA didn’t appear to be cavalry but still idiots that tried to cancel what ended up being a successful mission, let Canada take credit when none was due and gave out awards only to take them away immediately and pretend they never happened.

    Of course, Canada was enormously helpful in the rescue, so it’s a terrifically convoluted point: Argo had to lie to make the CIA look like goobers, and while lying created a nice rah-rah America point. Ugh, so much to unpack here.

    I agree that if the word “asylum” was used in Argo regarding the Shah, that was a stupid mistake. That said, there seems to be plenty of evidence that many iranians felt Carter’s actions were tantamount to asylum, so I don’t consider that particular point to be bad faith.

    However, I do consider painting Iran as a “galaxy far, far away” as Mark Cousins so aptly put it to be a prime example of bad faith in Argo. I really thought the film was going for a metaphor that would reveal the USians for being wrong to think of Iran as a chaotic foreign planet that no one could possibly understand. When the finale came and no such resolution was had, and instead we see the Argo storyboard amidst Star Wars and Star Trek toys, I was startled and disappointed.

  2. I think the larger point, a political perspective, is that there aren’t many films that are truly critical of the CIA, and the ones that do so always take a “dissenter-on-the-inside” viewpoint which is safe to ask the audience to identify with. ARGO fits that pattern.

  3. We can give the screenwriter credit for including some criticism of US policy, but as always, they try to avoid “taking a stance.” I dislike preachiness as much as the next guy, but there has to be a case for just saying what you think sometimes.

    It’s not a movie that really makes us realize that Iranians are just like us: a movie like Kiarostami’s 10 does that, but a US film would probably only attempt such a thing if it could cast Americans as Iranians…

  4. I enjoyed Argo enormously. But I would no more expect it to be “historically accurate” than any other thriller, includingZ and The Battle of Algiers.

    The Shah was ENTIRELY an invention of the CIA and the U.S.state department — a tin-horn dictator confected along Latin American models. That he was shuttled at one point toEgypt is no indication that the aftermath of his fall wasn’t orchstrated by those who put him in power in the first place.

    Mark Cousins had a nice time in Iran? Mazel tov. Robert Wilson had an even nicer time there under the Shah. Maybe HE should make a movie about the Iranian “revolution.” I doubt Kirostami would be interested. If so Kal Pen should play Ferydoun Hoyveda — ambassador to the U.S.under the Shah and “Cahiers du Cinema” critic whose fulsome praise of Nick Ray’s Party Girl still rings in my ears (it was the subject of considerable debate back in the day for those with memories that go beyond last week.)

    That Argo doesn’t explore life in Iran is no surprise in that it chiefly explores the living room of the Canadian embassy where the escapes fled to. That the storing of the U.S. embassy is preseted as spectacle is quite natural. The notion tat the revolt was Marxist in origin and later subsumed by Islamicists is most amusing. I would love to see Cousins’ script dramatiziing it.

    Terrio’s script at least dramatizes the importance of te U.S. embassy officials shredding the documentation of our crimes.

    and by that I mean CRIMES!

    He cleverly arranges a “call-back” in the third act where the shreds are put back together in order to identify the “film scouting crew” as they race to the plane. In reality it wasn’t as Way Down East as all that. But Affleck is a canny filmmaker. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were nicely done, but Argo finds him putting his Sydney Pollack pants on — and they fit superbly!

    As for Terrio, this is even more out-of-the-blue. I do hope everyone who reads this blog puts his superb Heights in their Netflix queque. Starring Glenn Close and Elizabeth Banks it’s a mother/daughter drama with theater as a backdrop, a naughty bisexual fiance (played by te lovely James Marsen) and an audition scene where a bit of Roberto Zucca by Bernard-Marie Koltes is performed.

    And if you know who he is you’ve just one 500 points on Gay Jeopardy.

  5. As for Iran today –

  6. I’ll look into Heights ASAP!

  7. Maybe the camera should pause occasionally… and maybe the students should have been less good. But it’s a great opening!

  8. I saw, and greatly enjoyed, Argo last night; I had been avoiding your post until after I’d seen the film.

    While there are certainly manipulations of the facts, at least some of which might seem to be in bad faith, I can’t help thinking that Affleck would be in this position irrespective of the film he made — sure, he might have made a film more pleasing to Mark Cousins, but it still would not have been “true enough” or close enough to others’ experiences to satisfy them. On the other hand, even in the unlikely event had he gone down the road of producing a fully authentic look at the episode that gave full voice to Iranian experiences, or even more to the point a film that examined the Revolution rather than the hostage crisis, I suspect he’d be decried from the same or other quarters for appropriating Iranian stories.

    That’s not to grant Affleck carte blanche, but broadly speaking I think David E’s point is on the money — when dealing with mainstream film, we can’t approach it through a lens of historical accuracy (though even that seems like a construction — there are historically-grounded differences of opinion on the importance of then Marxist influence on the revolution, for instance), not least because of the process of compression in creating a two-hour film that is, first and foremost, designed to entertain and make money and only secondarily to enlighten. That’s, of course, part of the problem many people have with Hollywood… There’s a self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers, though, openly acknowledging that they’ll do most anything to sell a film; there’s nothing concealed about their motivations.

  9. The objection comes down to the fact that with Iran being portrayed as a rogue state again, the film comes at a sensitive time and doesn’t help the cause of peace. I agree there’s probably no way to win if this is the story you’re going to tell.

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