Jingoism as history

Print edition : March 08, 2013

(From left) Actor-director Ben Affleck and producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney with the award for best motion picture drama for 'Argo' at the Golden Globes awards ceremony in Beverly Hills on January 13. Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP

A still from 'Argo' shows Ben Affleck (centre). Photo: Claire Folger/AP

November 7, 1979: Overhead view of the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran shows Iranian students occupying the place. Photo: the Hindu Archives

February 1, 1980: The six Americans who escaped from Iran deplane at Washington's Andrews Air Force Base. The film 'Argo' tells the story of the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran by radical students in 1979 and the escape of these six from Iran. Photo: the Hindu Archives

February 7, 1979: Ayatollah Khomeini announces the appointment of Medhi Bazargan (right) as Prime Minister of the provisional government of Iran. Photo: the Hindu Archives

The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The Shah had not wanted to dismiss Mossadegh as Prime Minister but U.S. agents spent many months convincing him that he must. Photo: AFP

Mohammed Mossadegh. Photo: gfghf ghdfgb

Argo, despite pretending to be historically accurate, is only an action film in drag in which the Iranians are, for the most part, dangerous and anti-American.

ON November 4, 1979, radical Iranian protesters breached the walls of the United States Embassy in Tehran and took the U.S. diplomats working there hostage. They demanded that the U.S. send the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, then receiving treatment in a New York hospital for terminal cancer, to Iran to stand trial in exchange for the release of the hostages.

On November 6, 1979, The New York Times reported that the civilian government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and his 20-member Cabinet had resigned “after the Ayatollah’s advisers supported the student occupation of the U.S. Embassy despite assurances by the government that it would end the seizure and obtain the release of the hostages”.

In resigning, The New York Times reported, Bazargan was “conceding power to the Islamic authority of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini”. The resignation of the civilian government in protest over the embassy takeover, which came after months of internal struggle between the revolutionary factions that had overthrown the Shah, was a watershed moment in Iranian history. It gave the Khomeinists unchecked power at a critical time, shaping the contours of Iran’s government for decades to come.

Ben Affleck’s hit movie Argo carefully details the takeover of the embassy. But it leaves that critical part of the story out even though it is documented well by mainstream American news outlets. In Affleck’s film, Iranians are, for the most part, dangerous and anti-American. Only one character, a meek maid, seems to have some sympathy for the hostages; she ultimately risks her life to cover up their hiding place from the Revolutionary Guards.

It is a lost opportunity for an allegedly progressive Hollywood film-maker to tell that part of the history as well. The embassy takeover was, in the view of many Iranians like myself, a most ignominious episode, a clear violation of international law and an abrogation of accepted norms of decency. Argo introduces an entire new generation of U.S. moviegoers to the Hostage Crisis. In the end, it introduces a new chapter in the larger story without fundamentally changing the narrative.

Geopolitical gravitas

There was a time when Ben Affleck’s career had been all but reduced to tabloid fodder. As a half of the famed couple, Bennifer (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez), he was best known for partying in Vegas and starring in duds like Pearl Harbor. With the Fall 2012 release of Argo, Affleck’s transformation to serious auteur seems complete. Indeed, coupled with his activism over the Congo, the movie Argo has propelled him to the nexus of that powerful space where U.S. politics and Hollywood converge.

As word spread that President Barack Obama would nominate John Kerry as the next Secretary of State, rumours grew that Affleck would stand for election to become the next Senator from Massachusetts. The buzz grew as Affleck testified before the House Armed Services Committee on the conflict in the Congo on December 19. While in D.C., he taped an interview with CBS’ Bob Schieffer, which was aired on Face the Nation. “I do have a great fondness and admiration for the political process in this country,” Affleck told Schieffer when asked about a possible Senate run. “…I’m not going to get into speculation about my political future. I like to be involved. Right now I’m really happy being involved from the outside in the government, advocating for the Congolese, taking this movie that I made, Argo, and it’s really become a springboard for dialogue about our relationship with Iran which, as Hillary Clinton said, is probably the most pressing foreign policy issue today….”

The next day, with a status update on Facebook, Affleck announced he would not be seeking political office. Still, Affleck’s appearance on the leading Sunday morning political talk show was a clever way to plug his film to politicos while garnering more personal gravitas. As The Washington Post noted in predicting Argo would become an Oscar contender, Hollywood loves “geopolitical gravitas”.

How useful is the film Argo as a “springboard” for discussing the U.S.’ relations with Iran? At this particularly sensitive moment when the military option against the perceived nuclear ambitions of the Islamic Republic is under consideration, a serious examination of the U.S.’ history with Iran is indeed timely. Argo has been marketed as a thriller based on actual events. Those involved with the film have gone to great lengths to underline its veracity. Bryan Cranston, who plays a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, said in an interview: “As they say, truth is stranger than fiction and that is certainly the case with Argo.” Sharon Seymour, the film’s production designer, told The New York Times that Affleck had sent her documentaries and a box of books on the hostage crisis. “It needed to have a reality base,” Seymour explained. On the official website, the film’s synopsis explains: “Based on real events, the dramatic thriller Argo chronicles the life-or-death covert operation to rescue six Americans, which unfolded behind the scenes of the Iran hostage crisis, focussing on the little-known role that the CIA and Hollywood played—information that was not declassified until many years after the event.”

Many critics hailed the film as a successful thriller that is true to history. “ Argo makes this far-fetched story feel every bit as real, and intense, as it was,” wrote Owen Gliberman in Entertainment Weekly. “This is the kind of filmmaking that elevates suspense to a perception—of how a single frothing spasm of confrontation changed the relationship between America and the increasingly radicalised Muslim world.” Christy Lemire of The Associated Press concurred, “While steeped in the trends and filmmaking style of the decade, Argo still feels immediate and relevant.” Many responded to the comedic aspects of the film’s presentation of making a fake science fiction film. In The Christian Science Monitor, Peter Rainer commented, “The movieland satire is laid on thick, but it’s also deadly accurate. Schlock has never seemed so patriotic....”

For many viewers, then, the film does more than present a historic episode; its story remains relevant and is patriotic. Indeed, some have commented that in order to bolster the suspense of the film to energise viewers, Affleck has inserted a fictionalised chase scene. “It struck me as a bit rich,” wrote Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, “to make such sport of Hollywood deceitfulness and then to round off your movie with an expert helping of white lies, piling on car chases that never occurred.” Lane may have been offended by a fabricated car chase. Neglecting to point out that while the events related in Argo were taking place the entire government of Iran resigned in protest over the hostage-taking is the historical oversight I find most glaring.

On the face of it, Argo is a thriller. But, ultimately, it is the film’s historicity that drives the narrative, builds the story’s suspense, and provides its climactic ending. The film’s historic prologue signals a progressive tilt by referencing the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup in Iran. An Iranian woman’s voice speaks over documentary photographs of revolutionary Iran, some taken by Abbas of Magnum Photos, and cartoon illustrations that echo Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. But the historical narrative we hear is riddled with mistakes. For starters, Mohammed Mossadegh was not elected as Prime Minister in 1950; according to Iran’s parliamentary system, he was appointed by the Shah. While it is true that the governments of Great Britain and the U.S. engineered the coup, they did not depose Mossadegh and install the Shah. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had been the Shah of Iran since 1941, when the Allies deposed his father. And at the time that Mossadegh nationalised the Iranian oil industry, the U.S. had no petroleum holdings in Iran. Five sentences into the film and I count three significant historical errors.

It is not my intention to mark up the movie’s script like the history professor that I am. That would be unfair. Affleck made a Hollywood feature film, not a documentary. But if we are to accept that he, and the film’s producer, George Clooney, have progressive politics, there is a lost opportunity to tell a richer story of the 1953 coup. The basic story of that coup has been well flushed out in several widely read books.

Argo might have told viewers, for example, that the Shah had not wanted to dismiss Mossadegh as Prime Minister but that U.S. agents spent many months convincing him that he must. Indeed, the U.S. sent Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf Sr, father of “Stormin’ Norman”, to help convince the Shah. Schwarzkopf later helped set up SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police and personally trained its first employees. While Argo tells us about SAVAK, we hear nothing of the central role the U.S. played in its establishment.

Using the same word count Argo devoted to retelling rumours that the Shah had his lunches flown in from Paris or that the Queen bathed in milk, Argo could have shared some actual history with its viewers. That the film was not intended to be revisionist history is clear to its actors. As Bryan Cranston told an interviewer, “We’re glad that in this true story the CIA comes out looking, like, hey you know what, they did good!” Film-makers have long turned to making feature films that have the look and feel of a documentary. Most famously, Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers mimicked a black-and-white documentary. But in 1966, Pontecorvo used the technique to underline essential truths on colonialism and nationalist resistance that were embedded in his feature film.

An action film in drag

Watching Argo, I get the sense that Affleck drapes his movie in the vestiges of documentary as a way to make a story, which was largely about waiting and whose ending was already known, seem more penetrating and suspenseful. The film is laced throughout with actual newsreel. There is archival footage of the journalist Ted Koppel, who became intrinsically connected to the crisis through his nightly television broadcasts on each of the 444 days the hostages were held in Iran. Argo is among the rare Hollywood movies granted permission to shoot in the actual CIA building. The image of Argo’s actors walking through the CIA’s iconic lobby adds to the sense that we are witnessing real events, not just a movie. Cranston told The Hollywood Reporter about working with the CIA on the film: “You have to have some pretty high clearance to be able to go through and take a tour. They did a background check on me when I went to talk to them.”

Like the prologue, the film’s credits also delve into “reality”. Here we see documentary photographs juxtaposed with film stills, underlining the truth-telling claims of the film. The gesture seemed to convince The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, who wrote: “Given how great the very premise is, it makes sense to stick more or less to the official record—a series of photographs from the hostage crisis that is juxtaposed with stills from the movie show how close Mr. Affleck hews to the evidence....” President Jimmy Carter even makes an appearance, recounting his memories of the incident on which Argo is based. Apparently sensitive to criticism made by the then Canadian Ambassador to Iran that the film downplayed Canada’s role, Affleck even changed the postscript as recompense.

As of the first week of January 2013, Argo grossed over $166 million in worldwide distribution. During the Oscar season, it is bound to garner even more viewers. Those who go to see Argo may leave the theatre thinking they have just learned some history. But, really, at the end of the day, they have seen a heart-wrenching historical episode giving way to a political thriller complete with bad sideburns, car chases, and a watered-down version of history. As a reviewer in the Chicago Reader wrote, “...making an anti-Iranian action flick in Hollywood isn’t exactly a daring act”. Ultimately, whatever the film-maker’s intentions, Argo comes across as liberal jingoism.

Shiva Balaghi, a professor at Brown University in the United States, is the editor of Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution (2002).

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