Sashi Kumar

Telling the story and spinning a yarn

Print edition : April 05, 2013

Ben Affleck poses with his award for best picture for 'Argo' during the Oscars in Los Angeles on February 24. Photo: John Shearer/Invision/AP

Ben Affleck’s film ‘Argo’ is not about seeking to understand or about reconciling differences, but about reinforcing the “othering” of Iran. Irrespective of their internal political differences, Iranians are unlikely to take kindly to such a civilisational taunt.

WE hear that the Iranian counter to Ben Affleck’s Oscar award winning Argo is to be another film titled The General Staff by Tehran-based film-maker Ataollah Salmanian, also set against the hostage crisis of 1979-81. Salmanian says the script is done and that it deals with the revolutionaries releasing 20 American hostages to the United States. That number doesn’t quite tie in with the American narrative, and the current conjecture in the Western media is that this must be about the 12 hostages, including African Americans and women, who were freed soon after the takeover of the U.S. embassy.

Be that as it may, a fanciful thought that offers itself in this situation is that such tit-for-tat films may be a better way than sanctions, nuke-baiting or nuke-rattling for the U.S. and Iran to settle scores with each other—a variant, if you like, of ping-pong diplomacy. The one has the world’s most powerful cinema hub, Hollywood, which ever so often comes to the rescue of the prestige of the American state, and the other arguably the best collection of new generation film-makers, whose genius and prestige the state seems woefully unaware of or unimpressed by, and some of whom, like Jafar Panahi, the state in fact rewards with imprisonment, ban and house arrest for their creative expression, and who therefore make their mark in spite of the state.

Argo is both about a film within a film and a rescue within a rescue. The film within the film part is trite and apparent enough. Ben Affleck, as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, thinks up the ruse of a production team from Hollywood doing a reconnaissance for a sci-fi film to smuggle six American diplomatic staff members—who had escaped from the embassy when the revolutionaries broke into it on November 4, 1979, and taken refuge in the house of the Canadian Ambassador in Tehran —on a flight back to the U.S. This, as an article in the Wired magazine of August 2007, which inspired Affleck to make the film, tells us, is more or less how it happened.

The CIA agent in real life, the same article informs us, was Tony Mendez, who was trained in the agency’s Office of Technical Service (OTS) where, among other things, they were working on those explosive-laden cigars to get Fidel Castro. Mendez was an expert at “identity transformation” and this is what Affleck is supposed to be doing in the film as he identity-trains each of the six Americans in their respective role plays in the recce team and fixes their false passports and documentation. But all of this is so cursory and routine that, but for its real-life intimation and the meticulous recreation and evocation of the period, the film would have ended up looking like a plot with a hole for a bottom rather than, appropriately for a spy thriller, with a false bottom.

Within the dramatic rescue motif seems embedded the real motive: to rescue and refurbish the American image from the beating it took through the 444 days of the siege of the embassy under the intense scrutiny of the international media by retrofitting it with the successful initiative of a side plot at a time when Iran is again occupying mind and media space on a regular basis in the U.S. Other than this there seems little reason for such a film appearing at this juncture, and for it bagging the top Oscar prize. It is instructive that in the media speculation leading up to the Academy awards, the wisest and most experienced voices were predicting a win for Argo, not necessarily because it was the best in the race but because it was the right film at the right place at the right time. The on-screen presence of the U.S. First Lady to present the award only strengthened this impression of political expediency.

Ethically discomfiting

The casualness with which Argo combines fact and fiction makes it ethically discomfiting. The opening prefatory section itself, ostensibly meant to set the historical and political contexts, sets this hybrid tone. Running into a few minutes, it combines sketched imagery of the graphic novel with documentary photographs and snippets of archival footage to tell us, in a matter-of-fact narrator’s voice, that in the land of Iran, which was once called Persia, where rulers called Shahs had been ruling for 2,500 years, a secular democrat, Mohammad Mossadegh, was elected Prime Minister in 1950 (in fact it was in 1951), who went on to nationalise the oil assets of the country; that the U.S. and Britain, the affected parties, engineered a coup against Mossadegh in 1953 and restored effective power to Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was a despot with an obnoxiously luxurious lifestyle while his people starved and were tortured by his dreaded secret police, Savak. The Shah, the narration goes on, took steps to modernise Iran and this turned the conservative Shias against him so that he was deposed in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile abroad and there was anarchy everywhere with mobs clamouring for the Shah, in asylum and dying of cancer in the U.S., to be returned to stand trial in Iran.

If Ben Affleck had taken the trouble to read Edward Said’s fairly detailed critical analysis of the media depiction of Iran, written even while the hostage crisis was in progress and there was no resolution yet in sight (he devotes a long four-part chapter titled ‘The Iran Story’ to this in his work Covering Islam published in 1981), he would have realised that in spite of the benefit of hindsight he was falling into the same ethnocentric stereotype that the American media exhibited in their daily print and broadcast coverage during the period. As Said, himself a U.S. citizen, put it, “[I]t seemed that ‘we’ were at bay, and with us the normal, democratic, rational order of things. Out there, writhing in self-provoked frenzy, was ‘Islam’ in general, whose manifestation of the hour was a disturbingly neurotic Iran.”

Transgression of fact

But then, perhaps, such typecasting was imperative to push the plot. Ben Affleck doesn’t let truth get in the way of his story, as he himself admitted in response to the snafu about the reference in the film to the British and New Zealand embassies not offering succour to the six Americans before they were given refuge by the Canadian Ambassador, whereas in fact they did. “I struggled with this long and hard,” a report in The Telegraph quotes him as saying, “because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair…. But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.” In the same report the then British Ambassador to Iran, Sir John Graham, was piqued enough by this transgression of fact to deplore that “the film-makers should have got it so wrong. My concern is that the inaccurate account should not enter the mythology of the events in Tehran in November 1979.”

It becomes similarly convenient, even necessary, from the point of view of the given cinematic plot line, to project the revolution as all and utter mayhem, to paper over the timelines of the emerging new order as well as the tensions and differences in the ideological positions of a Beheshti, Bazargan, Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzdeh, and reduce it all to a largely faceless, amorphous mass of antipathetic and agitating Iranians, essentialised in the austere iconic visage of Ayatollah Khomeini on larger-than-life banners and posters, versus the six guileless Americans meant to be the objects of our empathy, mentored by their CIA rescuer, finding their scripted way out of this mess.

The film is not about seeking to understand or about reconciling differences, but about reinforcing the “othering” of Iran. Irrespective of their internal political shortcomings and differences, Iranians are unlikely to take kindly to such a civilisational taunt. The American attitude demonstrated in the film is faintly reminiscent of the Hollywood hatchet job of the Cold War era.

To go back to Said, even in the thick of the hostage standoff it was clear to him that “the world we live in is much too complex and much too different now and much too likely to go on producing unconventional situations (however little they may be to the United States’ liking as a nation) to be treated as if everything could be translated into affronts or to enhancements of American power. Americans cannot continue to believe that the most important thing about ‘Islam’ is whether it is pro- or anti-American. So xenophobically reductive a view of the world would guarantee a continued confrontation between the United States and the rest of an intransigent mankind…. I suppose that such a policy could be considered active advocacy of the ‘Western way of life’, but I believe an equally good case could be made that the Western way of life does not necessarily involve provoking hostility and confrontation as a means for clarifying our own sense of our place in the world.”

When a film is predicated on a well-documented historical context, when it is pitched against the backdrop of a vast political churning constitutive of a new and difficult nationhood as was Iran in 1979, there are limits to the liberties the film-maker can take with what actually happened. Argo works as a credible gripping narrative because it is referenced to the context every inch of the way, or so we believe. Remove the reference, and the film collapses like a deflated balloon. Faithfulness to the context then becomes a minimum ethical obligation.



Fractional facts

If Ben Affleck had given to the film’s ethical integrity even a fraction of the attention he devotes to its outward aesthetical aspect, he could have emerged with a film which was like a mnemonic bookmark in the pages on this transitional period in Iran. As it stands, fractional facts prop up a figment that misleads and disinforms. We do not know where he is telling the story and where spinning a yarn.

What transpires in the final scenes as the Americans pass through airport security before they board their Swissair flight out of Tehran—making it by the skin of their teeth—is as suspenseful as it is because we are not aware as we watch that it is all false. Unless, of course, we have learnt from the real Tony Mendez on the CIA website that the operation, ‘exfiltration’ as it is called, went without a hiccup even at the airport and was, as he describes it, “as smooth as silk”.

If anything, the construct, or reconstruct, of the tension in the final moments of the film has an opposite resonance post 9/11, when reports of profiling and targeted scrutiny of Muslims travelling to, from, or through U.S. airports have become commonplace.

Postscript: Some five years after the real or make believe (take your pick) scene at the airport in January 1980, I was there—in the real airport, that is—to take a return flight out of Iran. I had, a couple of days earlier, flown into Tehran via Dubai from Bahrain, where I was based as the West Asia correspondent of The Hindu, to interview Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. By then the revolution had consolidated around Khomeini, the Islamic Republic was firmly in place, Iran was on the offensive in the war against, and provoked by, Iraq, anti-Americanism continued to be on a high with the stars and stripes as the motif on the large foot mats at the entrance to hotels so that one had to step on and across them to get into the lobby, and rifle-wielding Revolutionary Guards, many of them in their teens, were a common sight in the capital.

At the security check in the airport, the audio tape of the Velayati interview I carried in my inner jacket pocket caused a hubbub with a group of Revolutionary Guards surrounding me and demanding to know why I had not declared it in the first place. When I explained that it contained my interview with their Foreign Minister, they seemed mollified, but then wanted to check it on an audio player first. I had visions of the erase instead of the play button being pressed, and decided to up the ante. I told them they could play the tape, but that if something happened to the recording, I would have to reproduce the interview from memory and they would be to blame for the consequences, if any. It worked and they waved me on to the waiting flight.

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