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Iran, Politics, and Film: "Argo" or "A Separation"?

By       Message Jennifer Epps     Permalink
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Sahar also reflects a class differential that accompanies the chasm between nations in Argo. Apart from a smooth-talking, sinister heavy Ali Khalkali (Ali Saam) who presides over a cultural portfolio in the new government, we see only guards, soldiers, merchants, a guide, a domestic worker, and unspecified mobs in the street. By contrast, the American characters are either professionals or have highly skilled jobs: CIA agents, State Dept. officials, members of the Foreign Service, and Hollywood above-the-line talent or artisans. Thus the overall picture of Argo 's Iranian characters as second-class is exemplified even through their occupations. Note that this is very much at odds with the value system Iranian-Americans often express, cherishing educational accomplishments and taking great pride in professional status.

In a somewhat similar vein, Argo does not make it clear that the storming of the embassy was carried out by militant students -- and only a few years after a wave of occupations in the U.S., albeit usually considerably more non-violent, by students and militants. We absorb only an impression of an amorphous, frenzied mob. By contrast, U.S. news media corporations covering the 2011 Green Revolution in Iran made sure we knew about the youth component in that movement -- because they wanted to help American viewers identify with the protesters, and to make them seem rational.

Yet one would think that discussions in Argo  among the students suddenly in direct control over so many people's lives would have held some dramatic potential. The Tehran students' views on the internal conditions within the U.S. -- the fact that they released some hostages early who were female or people of color because, they claimed, these people were oppressed by the American system -- would certainly have suggested that Iran contained thinking beings. But we never go behind-the-scenes at this revolution. (Instead, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio's tempering historical introduction is soon outweighed by the visceral power of mobs storming walls, chador-clad women toting rifles, and banshees screaming into news cameras.) To allow a little insight wouldn't mean Argo would be condoning the revolution or hostage-taking. After all, in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens empathized with the suffering that led to the French revolution, but he still made its horror manifest. And he did it all in the service of a breathtakingly exciting escape story, not unlike Argo.

"Argo" still of 6 Americans escaping the U.S. Embassy

But there's also the fact that Argo suggests and circles around the idea that the whole crisis was blowback against CIA covert ops. It might have been appropriate for somebody on the American side to feel conflicted about what they had wrought. Affleck portrays a real CIA agent, lead character Tony Mendez, who gets people out of tough places; he is even said to have helped get some of "the Shah's people" out. But he is an uncompromised hero -- his struggle is less about ethical questions than about strategy, and (as the Republicans like to say) "resolve.' Ironically, Affleck had more of an internal dilemma in the last movie he directed, the bank heist caper The Town. And in the one before that, Gone Baby Gone, Ben's brother Casey faced very troubling moral choices. Yet those Boston thrillers were about garden-variety criminals and detectives, and their moral quandaries involved only a couple of people. Why do the decades of Cold War schemes of the CIA, carried out on a mass scale beyond democratic oversight and frequently subverting democracy abroad, occasion so much less gravitas?

Now, these liberal filmmakers might object that an introspective CIA tragedy has already been made (The Good Shepherd, starring Affleck's friend Matt Damon), and so has a bumbling CIA farce (Burn After Reading, featuring Clooney). They could well ask "what do you want from us?", and point out that Argo actually calls the CIA the biggest terrorist organization in the world. Yes, but that designation is made, and only in passing, by America's official enemy, and as Noam Chomsky would explain, that's how the media prevents accusations from hitting home.

Clooney, Heslov, and Affleck might point out that the movie does stipulate why Iranians were angry at the U.S. Yes but, again, as media critics would attest, if you bury a story deep inside the newspaper, readers will assume it is of little importance: the well-intentioned seeds that Argo plants to explain "why they hated us" in 1979 are stomped on by the boots of the maniacal hordes. (Affleck also shows archival footage of Americans throwing tantrums in the streets and calling for Iranian blood, but they're not directly terrorizing anybody at the time; the Iranians are.)

The problem is that viewers who don't already know their Chomsky or William Blum aren't going to walk out of the film muttering "gee, it's more complicated than I thought." Instead, they'll leave with their fears and prejudices reaffirmed: that Middle Easterners create terror, that Americans must be the world's policemen, and that Iranians cannot be trusted because they hate America.

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It could be argued that Argo is not meant to be a leftist political tract or a dour history lecture but a fun spy thriller, which is how it got financed in the first place. I realize that many of my concerns are about elements that actually work resoundingly well in purely cinematic terms -- and maybe Affleck was so focused on pacing, tension, drama, and excitement, all of which are his job, after all, that the other psychological effects he was creating didn't even occur to him. I admit I have no idea if the changes I'd like would have made it a better movie; perhaps my way would have been the boring way. It is certainly extremely entertaining as it is: crisply and intelligently directed, perfectly-cast as Affleck's films always are, witty, moving, absorbing, and nail-bitingly intense. If politics and humanitarian concerns didn't matter, it could be called a terrific movie.

Farshad Farahat, the Iranian-American actor who plays "Azzizi Checkpoint #3", probably appreciates that the makers of Argo were not consciously on the war path like the author of 300, Frank Miller was. (Slate critic Dana Stevens wrote that if 300 "had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war." Some fans might not want to think 300 has this agenda, but Miller made the conclusion unavoidable when he told NPR: "It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants... For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we're up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent.") 

Long before his experience in Argo, Farahat wrote a guest essay for the L.A. Times about 300. It shows a glimpse of what it must be like to come from a culture that is so relentlessly demonized, and I suspect that part of what comes with that experience is appreciating differences in degree in how deeply a cultural artifact dips into the swamp of prejudice.


The triumvirate behind Argo have a track record that shows their concerns for social justice. As an activist, Clooney has worked for years against the genocide in Darfur. He also produced and starred in the searing ensemble drama about the politics of oil in the Middle East, Syriana, and helped get the anti-war actioner Three Kings made. Heslov co-wrote the script for the film Clooney directed about the media and Cold War paranoia, Good Night, and Good Luck, and he directed a Clooney-starrer that gleefully subverted the military-industrial-intelligence complex, The Men Who Stare at Goats. Meanwhile, Affleck and his buddy Damon tried for years to get their old pal Howard Zinn's groundbreaking tome A People's History of the United States made into a miniseries. (A concert performance special of Zinn's work did air on History Channel before he passed away.)  

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We are certainly fortunate that the inviting premise of Argo did not end up in the hands of more jingoistic and warmongering directors or producers, like William Friedkin (Rules of Engagement) or Jerry Bruckheimer (Black Hawk Down). As I said, on the continuum of messaging in Hollywood movies on this general subject, Argo falls in the middle.

But despite their credentials and beliefs, Affleck, Clooney and Heslov have certainly not brought Argo anywhere close to The House of Sand and Fog. Trita Parsi, reviewing the latter film for the National Iranian American Council, deemed it "one of Hollywood's first refined and sophisticated portrayals of Iranians and Iranian Americans... a step in the right direction for Hollywood; away from its simplistic, Manichean perspective and towards a polished outlook with a focus on the essence of the individual". Argo almost completely ignores individual Iranians; its portrait of an entire culture is neither refined nor sophisticated; and it does reinforce a simplistic, Manichean perspective. 

That may not have been the filmmakers' intentions at all -- and as I've mentioned, they did have a lot on their plate, since Argo is a very ambitious film, with plenty of inherent difficulties just trying to get the normal filmmaking aspects right. But politics and humanitarian concerns do matter. Does the American public really need another movie that tells us to be afraid of Middle Easterners? Does a movie that makes the action sequences flashy and exciting but obscures the hard work of diplomacy (which ultimately got far more hostages out than this "caper' did) benefit our national psyche? Is it healthy for us to hold up images of Cold War CIA agents as selfless do-gooders? And when Iran is constantly lied about by politicians and media pundits, and there's a very real possibility that Israel or the U.S. could attack Iran militarily, is this movie going to help or is it going to harm?

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Jennifer Epps is a peace, social justice, pro-democracy, environmentalist and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, actor, puppeteer, and film critic. Her political film reviews are collected at: (more...)

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