Still of Ben Affleck and the Ayatollah from "Argo"
On the spectrum of recent U.S. films about intense life-and-death conflicts between Persians and "our guys', the most propagandistic, militaristic, and reactionary position is occupied by the reprehensible live-action cartoon 300. You could call this the "Kill Them All" position. On the opposite end of that spectrum, the most humanistic, egalitarian, and psychologically insightful position is occupied by the exquisite drama The House of Sand and Fog -- a chamber piece that shows how misunderstandings can spiral tragically out of control. You might call this the "Human Decency" position.
Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes lies the new movie Argo, directed by Ben Affleck for Smokehouse Pictures, the production company owned by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Argo is about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, and how the CIA came up with an unlikely rescue plan for six of the Americans hiding outside of the embassy: they would pretend to make a sci-fi movie. The premise has enormous potential, and it's easy to see why it would be attractive to Hollywood. Unfortunately, the finished product is nowhere near the "Human Decency" end of the spectrum. I think its liberal makers would be surprised and actually ashamed if they realized how much more it leans towards 300.
There is no doubt that Argo is a very ambitious film. It wants to be life-and-death serious, funny, and exciting all at once, and to join historical accuracy with breathless pacing, jokey put-downs of Hollywood, and an absurdist scheme at the story's core. As Affleck confided in an interview, it is also ambitious in its delicate tonal balance. It aims to be a taut suspense thriller that also provides some history of the strained relations between the U.S. and Iran, and it tries to re-create the 1970's vibe without being too cheesy or campy. All the while, of course, it is designed to be commercial, with a budget of $44 million -- the L.A. Times alleges that this makes it "one of the season's more daring gambles, the kind of movie most studios stopped making in the last decade."
At the same time, it seems to want to leave us with the takeaway that even in a nightmarish scenario, bitter differences can be resolved without bombing anyone. (At the premiere, the audience applauded President Carter's voiceover explaining that in the end we got all the hostages out, and we did it peacefully). The movie does show that deciding against a bloodbath can take courage and foresight. And perhaps this is what Affleck, Clooney, and Heslov believe made the movie the right thing to do right now -- even at the risk of stoking the fires of warmongers here at home in 2012, by raising the spectre of Americans imperiled by Iran.
Well, it achieves all those goals in spades, and I applaud its ambitions and its aplomb. But I wish it was considerably more ambitious.
Argo catapults between, as Affleck put it to the L.A. Times, "three different themes and three different worlds: the CIA, Hollywood, and the Iran tensions." Affleck's quote is informative: the third theme or world that he organized the film around was "Iran tensions', not Iran itself. Not even the Iranian revolution. The subject is the threat to Americans. Argo is about the plight of 6 Americans hiding out in Tehran after the embassy is seized, and it cuts away only to strategic debates at CIA headquarters as agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) struggles against bureaucratic inertia, or to comic relief scenes in Hollywood between John Goodman and Alan Arkin. No matter where our wheels touch down, it's Americans who matter. This is a movie that views Iran in the 1970s from the living-room where the 6 are hiding -- and the blinds are closed.
The cover story being used to try to smuggle the 6 hideaways out of Tehran is that they are location-scouting for a movie, so the day before they are to escape, they go out in public to make their aliases more believable. Do we, on the pretend location scout, finally see some of Tehran's cultural landmarks? Do we get a sense of an ancient civilization and a sophisticated culture? Do we have any panoramas of people going about their business in the complexity of a metropolitan city? No, because the Americans' expedition is just as claustrophobic as the scenes in their lair -- Affleck crowds them into a van, squeezes the van in a vice as they are swarmed by furious protesters, and then jostles them around in a packed bazaar that turns hostile. Of course, he's doing this deliberately for the tension it creates in them and in us. But throughout the film, the Iran we see in the news clips and the Iran we see dramatized are all on the same superficial level: incomprehensible, out-of-control hordes with nary an individual or rational thought expressed.
After a brief (albeit important) animated storyboard introduction that contextualizes the events of 1979 with some history, it is the storming of the American embassy which begins both the film proper and our exposure to the Iranian revolution. You wouldn't know from this film that, despite years of persecution during Iran's westernized government, the communist Tudeh Party was also out organizing workers' strikes during the turmoil of the Shah Pahlavi's overthrow. The movie does stress that the U.S. helped overthrow the democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mossaddeq in 1953 because he dared to nationalize Iran's oil, and then backed the Shah and his use of the notorious SAVAK secret police to kidnap and torture the Shah's opponents. These are obviously excellent points to make. But Argo glosses over the diversity of opinion in Iran and the intellectual ferment before the theocratic lockdown, making the culture look exactly the way an insular American public has come to believe all Islamic countries look. The film offers only scant insight into how the Islamists came to win over a country that had previously been quite secular and sophisticated.
Very, very few Iranian characters are individualized in Argo, and most of the time when we see Iranians on-screen, their words are not translated for us. Take Farshad Farahat's character. He is an officer in the Revolutionary Guards, one of the final terrifying obstacles the escaping protagonists must face at the airport. Farahat tries not to play stupid or cartoonish like so many ethnic villains in Hollywood movies, but most of the little he has been given to say is un-translated, so Farahat has to do almost all of the work with his eyes. The movie apparently never intended much more for him: his character's name is merely "Azzizi Checkpoint #3".
Another Persian, Reza (Omid Abtahi), makes an appearance in the marketplace in Tehran. His defining characteristic is whether the Americans can trust him. When he is friendly, his words are translated. When an altercation breaks out, there are no subtitles.
And even the point of the jokey snippet of dialogue that is translated seems to be to mock his idea of a Hollywood movie even more than Argo sends up the fake sci-fi B-movie. This dialogue emphasizes his cultural Other-ness, making him sound as sexist and out-of-touch as a Sacha Baron Cohen creation.
Nowhere, in a caper that exists in part to celebrate movie magic, is it mentioned that Iran has its own cinematic tradition -- though if the Argo creative team had ever seen the award-winning 1992 tribute film Once Upon a Time, Cinema they would have seen clips from old Iranian movies dating all the way back to the silent era. By the time Argo is set, a number of Iranian film festivals had been in existence several years, including the Tehran International Film Festival 'to promote the art of Cinema that expresses humanitarian values and promotes understanding and exchange of ideas between nations'. And there were already several film and television schools in Iran, including a decade-old government-financed School of Television and Cinema which students attended for free. 480 feature films were made in Iran between 1966 and 1973; filmmakers, like other Iranian artists and intellectuals, had plenty to call attention to under the Shah's oppressive regime. In fact, the Iranian New Wave, which launched in 1969, should have been known to Argo 's Foreign Service professionals who had spent their leisure time in Tehran; with filmmakers as respected as Dariush Mehrjui and Abbas Kiarostami already active. By the late seventies, movies were already the key form of mass entertainment in the country. Yet Affleck has the Revolutionary Guards gawking and giggling over the storyboards and poster for the fake Hollywood movie like awe-struck children.
The most important Iranian character in the film is the young and beautiful Sahar (Sheila Vand), the housekeeper to the Canadian ambassador and his wife who secretly harbor the 6 American refugees. But calling her the most important Iranian character is not saying much -- and neither is Sahar. Over a handful of scenes she may have a grand total of 3 lines. In this case they are translated, because they are relevant to the plot. Her character, however, is defined by her attitude toward the Americans. She also may be the only kind of Iranian the movie is interested in individuating because she is separated from her society, ensconced in a Western household.