On the heels of the Golden Globes and in anticipation of The Academy Awards, Rob Kall's excellent piece on the big winner this awards season being the Military/Security Complex perfectly summed up my feelings about the overwhelming propaganda that passes for normal in today's major Hollywood films and television. His assertion that the big winner at the Globes and in Oscar nominations was the CIA got me thinking about why films like Zero Dark Thirty (basically a co-production with the U.S. military/intelligence services) turn my stomach, and yet I admit thoroughly enjoying Argo , a CIA romp if ever there was one.
I thought Argo was the best film I saw in 2012... and I did not expect to think that, based on the "glorification' of the CIA and the 'demonization' of the Iranians, given what was going on in the news (the escalations of hostilities over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program) when it was released. In fact, given the endless stream of anti-Iranian sentiment in mainstream media recently, I was ready to dismiss Argo as yet another log on the fire of American jingo.
However, the film began winning me over in the first few minutes, as it gave a straightforward political lesson: these people were really angry, they were really angry with us, and, considering what we did, they had every reason to be. As other critics have said, it's unfair and nearly impossible to give a two-minute synopsis of two hundred years of political and cultural developments, but it might have been the first American film I've ever seen, outside of maybe JFK, that refreshingly didn't present the political situation in a vacuum or totally from the biased America-can-do-no-wrong side.
Argo 's introduction is an historical recap, simplistic as it may be, that we, meaning the United States and The UK, meaning the CIA " orchestrated a coup in a sovereign country. As if that wasn't egregious enough, in doing so, we replaced a democratically-elected and popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, (who of course supported the idea of kicking out the petroleum companies who were literally siphoning out the natural wealth of the country) and replaced him with a reluctant "vacillating coward" in Reza Shah Pahlavi who kept protected the oil companies, ruled the country with a security/intelligence service that rivaled anything East Germany or the Nazis could come up with and we did it all in such a way that, although it might not have been newsworthy here in the U.S., it was acknowledged in Iran that the Americans executed and paid for the Shah's return to power to protect its oil interests. The shameless and brazen American intervention put in power a dictator who brutalized his subjects and did it in the name of America and its allies, the multinationals. See here.
In that context, if you are an American with an ounce of objectivity, it's impossible not to at least understand where the student-led protests were coming from and why their anger was directed at us. It seems simplistic to say: but I can only shudder to think what Americans would have done if the roles were reversed. Iran is no backwater, stone-age medieval country. Its citizens cannot be dismissed as a swarm of uneducated religious nutcases and, to its supreme credit, Argo doesn't reduce them to that level.
The Iranians in the film are at times depicted in varying shades of violent, kind, clueless, smart, incredibly devoted and creative in problem-solving. Some are enterprising in a way that defies their own political and religious beliefs and some are unexpectedly kind for reasons that only they can explain. In short, they're like real people.
Funny thing is, for a CIA movie, the CIA and White House are hardly portrayed as do-gooders whose motivations are always pure. There are plenty of gung-ho types back in Washington and a White House portrayed as alternately dismissive, willing to sabotage the Argo plan if it conflicts with their own rescue mission, and then capable of doing he right thing by, finally, authorizing the CIA's rescue plan.
Of course, not everyone agrees with my take. Ben Affleck, speaking last year to Huffington Post said it best: " I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that's another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible -- because I didn't want it to be used by either side. I didn't want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them. And what that meant was probably two people with different political perspectives would walk away with two different interpretations."
Jian Ghomeshi , a popular Canadian TV/radio host of Iranian descent (and in full disclosure, a friend of mine with whom I have yet to discuss my reaction to the film) saw it differently. In an interview with the Toronto Mail and Globe, Jian thought Argo had a "deeply troubling portrayal of the Iranian people". Ghomeshi said, "among all the rave reviews, virtually no one in the mainstream media has called out [the] unbalanced depiction of an entire ethnic national group, and the broader implications of the portrait." He also makes a good point: if you want to get a more up to date and less vitriolic presentation of real Iranian people, then you have only to go back to last year's Academy Award-winning film, Asghar Farhadi's A Separation , which humanizes the lives of ordinary Iranians the way Affleck's film, set as it is at the height of revolution, cannot.
Despite that, and accounting for all the political and cultural nuance, it's a fabulous thriller, with nuanced bad guys, nuanced good guys, and riveting action. It also has fun poking the stick at Hollywood with all its publicity machine and deal-making nonsense.
It's time to acknowledge that the Ben Affleck has become a wonderful director while no one was paying attention. His last three films (Gone Baby Gone , The Town , and Argo ) have really shined and are seemingly immune from being the big budget, big studio schlock that an actor with his box office appeal could easily have made.
If only Argo had been made in a year without the Hollywood royalty and universally-loved subject icon of Lincoln or the shameless patriotism of Zero Dark Thirty , Argo might have gotten itself some more recognition as a great film, regardless of politics or context. In a world where history has a way of repeating and there are never enough level-headed voices, let alone great movies, it certainly deserves all the accolades it gets.