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.
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.