I was mesmerized by the captivating drama which unfolds in the film Argo. It is sure to win many accolades next month at the Academy Awards. Nevertheless, it was irresponsible of Affleck and his collaborators to distort what actually happened, especially during this very turbulent time in the U.S.-Iran relationship.
In one of the first scenes in Argo, we see the American flag burning and Iranian students shouting outside the gates of the United States embassy -- much like the images we see daily in newsreels from the Middle East. There is a 30 second intro by a sultry-voiced woman who tries to convey to the lay audience how British and American interests in Iranian oil and natural gas led to the overthrow of Mossadegh, Iran's popular nationalist leader. Although in this moment, Affleck and his producers are clearly trying to educate American viewers, they fail to tell the whole truth, and thus they only add to the misconceptions about the country and its people.
Point one: That Affleck's character has his moment of epiphany for how to infiltrate Iran while watching Planet of the Apes is a bit troubling. Obviously, on some level, the film is seeking to satirize Hollywood's portayal of the Middle East, its tendency to exoticize its geography, to equate its people with primitive aliens. Thus, the Deputy Minister of Islamic Guidance astutely remarks when Mendez is in his office seeking permission to film in the local bazaar, "I see. The exotic orients, snake charmers, flying carpets." But the problem is that Argo doesn't represent enough of a departure from these tendencies. It too participates in a dangerous exoticization of Iran and its people, exemplifying the very mentality that it sometimes seeks to mock.
For instance, when Mendez and his fake film crew arrive at the bazaar to meet the culture ministry contact Reza Borhani, he dumbly asks Mendez with a wide grin on his face "Is this film a foreign brides film... where a foreign bride comes to Iran, but she doesn't understand the language or the customs, and there is misunderstandings and laughs?" A cultural ministry contact, especially at that time, would not have acted in such a manner. He would have known ahead of time exactly what the film was going to be about, and he almost certainly wouldn't have made any light-hearted jokes, given the tense political climate. This is followed by the tense bazaar scene with its carpets, crowds and oriental items, showing a combative shopkeeper who comes out shouting anti-American slurs when one of the fictional crew snaps a photo of his shop. The incident never happened, but also, any rational shopkeeper would have seen these foreigners as full of money to spend on his goods.
Point two: For purely cosmetic reasons, Ben Affleck's decision to cast himself as Tony Mendez, a Latino, is somewhat misleading. It's a shame considering all the fine Latino actors who would have jumped at the chance to play this fascinating character. Ironically, the real Mendez looks more like the Castro-like army fatigue wearing Iranian revolutionary guard at the end of the fillm. He would have blended in much better than a man with Affleck's features in an Iranian bazaar and on the streets of Tehran.
Point three: There were no subtitles in the last 15 minutes of the film when the absolutely fabricated police chase took place on the tarmac. This is relevant since it features a lot of chaos and shouting, much like the newsreels from the Middle East today. All we see are the Iranian Revolutionary guards, breaking windows and trying to push open doors. The fact that most Americans will have no idea what they are saying, will only serve to make them seem incomprehensibly foreign, and menacing. Mendez himself said in his own published account that the departure was "smooth as silk." Are we really expected to believe Iranian police would chase down a plane on the tarmac in automobiles? Obviously this was added for dramatic effect, but it also significantly featured a stereotypical portrayal of Iranians as irrational, angry and disorganized.
To be sure, Iran had its share of fanatics, but there were plenty of sane, reasonable people, some of whom must have helped to facilitate the escape of the Americans. Why Affleck failed to introduce any such Iranians, besides the poor, shy, mute servant girl Sahar, is a total mystery.
Hollywood movies will of course always bend the truth in order to produce a good narrative, but Argo's misrepresentations are particularly dangerous given the current state of relations between Iran and the U.S. In an article entitled "Diplomat Who Worked on Hostages Sees 'Argo' as Potentially Exploitive," Walker Gunning from Al-Monitor interviews Henry Precht, who was head of the Iranian Working Group at the State Department during the hostage crisis and who admits the film's timing is poor and that it "exploits the hostility to Iran in the United States and that I deplore." He continues, "I just don't have any idea how to make a film that would not make the United States look like it was outsmarting the vicious Iranians."
Precht also admits there were secret Iranian negotiators like foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh who worked with the Canadians and Hamilton Jordan, US Chief of Staff to Carter.
My final point is about the Canadians. It was indeed Ambassador Kenneth Taylor who orchestrated much of the final escape, not Mendez. The Canadians were the ones who cabled Washington to jumpstart evacuation plans and they also coached the U.S. embassy staff in all things Canadian. Indeed, the Canadian Ambassador complained that the film portrayed Canadians as "innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA." To his benefit, Affleck made some changes to the film after meeting with Taylor. Unfortunately, the Canadians still came off as looking clueless.
Yes, many will find Argo deeply entertaining. But I am still waiting for justice from Hollywood producers, who continuously seek an easy way to capitalize off of fabricated representations of what we talk about when we talk about Iran. Most of the distortions in Argo may have been produced for the sake of entertainment, and most probably without malevolent intent. But this is even more telling: the rules that dictate what makes for a good narrative in Hollywood films -- rules that shape the entire industry -- seem to require a flat one-dimensional portrayal of my country and its people. And that's bad news.