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Ben Affleck's Argo and the Problem With Viewing Iran Through a Narrow Lens

The season in which studios begin to roll out their Oscar contenders is upon us. Ben Affleck's third and probably most important directorial feat, Argo, will certainly receive due attention from the Academy. The film, however, should not receive acclaim for its untimely and unbalanced depiction of Iran and Iranians. Indeed, by revisiting the Iran Hostage Crisis at a critical moment when political hawks are ceaselessly demonizing Iran in their bid for another U.S.-led military conflict in the Middle East, Affleck, giving him the benefit of the doubt, unintentionally aids that effort.

Affleck's Argo is based on the true story of how six Americans were entangled in the revolutionary storm that gripped Iran in 1979 and managed to flee the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Holed up in the Canadian ambassador's residence for months, Ben Affleck's real-life character Tony Mendez, a CIA operative, concocts an elaborate plan to fly to Tehran and facilitate their escape. In doing so, he pretends to be part of a Canadian film crew making a B-level science-fiction film called Argo, which is based in the Middle East, and explains why they are in Iran scouting for locations for a movie that never actually existed.

It's a gripping political thriller that will keep moviegoers on the edge of their seats and holding their breaths. The problem, however, is the unintended political consequence of the film and its deeply troubling portrayals of Iranians.

In his book Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East, Ali Ansari writes, "For the U.S., the traumatic scene of Americans being paraded in front of cameras blindfolded, marked the beginning of a U.S. obsession with Iran." That obsession has led many Americans to view Iran strictly through the narrow scope of the Hostage Crisis, an event that transpired over 30 years ago. So ubiquitous is this trend that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, mainstream American media outlets mistook him for one of the hostage takers! The frenzy dissipated only when one of the actual American hostages, Thomas E. Schaefer, came out and dispelled the accusation.

Furthermore, Argo presents a country of more than 35 million in 1979 exclusively through the lens of terrorism and hostage-taking, public executions, bearded men shouting so hysterically that spit flies out of their mouths, one seemingly untrustworthy lonely servile female housekeeper and more. Through such an unbalanced depiction, viewers risk foregoing the basic humanity that Iranians share with the rest of the world. A telling example can be found in the reception to Iran's Academy Award winning film, A Separation.

Last winter, the film was a surprise hit in Israel, Iran's arch-nemesis. After being fed a steady diet of anti-Iranian news and media portrayals, Israelis nevertheless managed to connect with Iranians via A Separation and one was surprised to learn that "everyone had a fridge and a washing machine." One Israeli movie critic affirmed, "Ultimately you don't think about nuclear bombs or dictators threatening world peace. You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us." Indeed, Iranians are not that different if people are willing to see beyond the harmful stereotypes.

My intention is not to whitewash the radicalism and show trials of those fiery days, or to imply that Iran's current human rights record is a shining example for the world to follow, which it most certainly is not. I do, however, believe that by focusing exclusively on events such as the Hostage Crisis, movies like Argo dehumanize Iran and Iranians, indirectly aiding the efforts of political hawks with an "ax to grind" with the Persian Gulf country.

The first step towards war is denying the humanity of other people. Argo is an unwitting part of that effort. A Separation, however, broadcasted the Iranian people's humanity to the world. Iranians, like everyone else, worry about the future of their children, care about the health of their parents, and yes, own "fridges" and "washing machines." And if the message fell on deaf ears, Asghar Farhadi, the director of the film, reminded Americans in his masterful Oscar acceptance speech:

At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.

If we are to avert another tragic and catastrophic U.S.-led Middle East war, it is imperative that we first recognize the basic humanity of each people and move beyond this oppressively limiting, dangerous relic of the past paradigm of "us versus them."

Pouya Alimagham is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan's history program. You can follow him at @iPouya.