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.