I had written this many months ago but had not posted it. Therefore please excuse the fact that it is no longer ‘timely’.
When Argo took home the Oscar for Best Picture this year, there should have been a reason to shudder. Was it highly coincidental that the coveted award was presented by the First Lady of the United States from the White House? Was it also coincidental that while the US and Israel were deliberating their next move against Iran (which they think is working towards making nuclear weapons), a film that shows anti-American sentiment in 1979 in Iran won the big prize?
Argo, a thriller ‘based’ on declassified true events or so the film says, focuses on a major turn in history which led previous allies America and Iran to fall out completely. In November 1979, shortly after the US-backed Shah was toppled by an Islamic Revolution, a number of Islamist students and militants stormed into the US embassy in Tehran and held more than 60 hostages. Six diplomats escaped the siege and were sheltered by the Canadian embassy for close to three months until they were rescued. Argo is the story about how the CIA, with some help from Canada, created a plan to help the six diplomats out of Iran by making them pretend to be part of a film crew that was location scouting in Iran to make a fictional film ‘Argo’.
The question of whether or not Argo deserved the Best Picture Oscar is open to debate. However, just a year after Iranian film ‘A Separation’ was crowned Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, and its director Asghar Farhadi in his acceptance speech gave a human face to his country that has been the subject of so much hatred, Argo has successfully managed to erase those efforts.
What Argo does instead is claim that it is based on the truth. Half-baked truth can be really fatal however, and Argo builds a fictionalised account of the operation known as the ‘Canadian Caper’. Not only does it undermine Canada’s efforts in rescuing the six diplomats, but places the CIA and Hollywood as the real and unsung heroes of the operation.
What we get is a film in which not even one Iranian is depicted sanely. The only Iranian who is ‘sane’ is a woman who works as a maid, and is eventually shown leaving Iran to head for Iraq.
This comes at a disturbing time when 99% of Americans think that nuclear Iran is a threat to them. At such a time, stereotyping the ‘enemy’ has its benefits. All Iranians are reduced to people that cannot be trusted – they embody all the characteristics we see in stereotypical Middle Eastern ‘terrorists’. We see mostly males, with long beards and overly violent tendencies, who speak words that seem to indicate that they are on a quest to kill. The women are either part of the mob in their chadors, or are mostly unseen.
The six diplomats face severe turmoil when they come across any Iranians. A scene where the diplomats are in a car Mendez is driving, and a crowd of protestors starts hitting at the car angrily due to the ‘Americanised’ look of its occupants, really seeks to make the viewer understand how dangerous the situation is in a country where everyone is a fanatical anti-American Islamist. This is further reemphasised in a scene where the group goes into a bazaar with an Iranian culture expert for a tour of Iran for their fictional film shoot. This scene, as with the car scene, never took place in reality. The filmmakers do include it however, because it works so well for suspense as well as for portraying the Iranians as really bloodthirsty people. There is not even one friendly face in the bazaar, and an elderly man is quick to pick up a fight with one of the female American diplomats. This further heightens the idea that even the ‘normal’ Iranian people cannot be trusted at all.
Towards the end of the film, the group is taken aside by Iranian Revolutionary Guards for questioning. They are detained for a while, almost missing their flight, but are let go at the last minute. The main interrogator is a stereotypical Middle Eastern villain with a long flowing beard and a mistrust of white people. His accomplices are shown to be rather impassive, apart from the time when they are given the fictional film’s storyboards to keep as a present. Their faces turn into those of amusement – because they are so stripped of entertainment in the Islamic Republic.
Once the head of these Revolutionary Guards at the airport realises he has let the six escaped diplomats and Mendez get on the plane, in true Hollywood style, he dramatically manhandles one of the women at the airport to open the gate and then proceeds to shoot at the glass and propel himself outside. Not only did this fiasco never happen during the real operation, but again it really puts forward the point that in the film the Iranians are so thirsty for American blood, that they can go to the extent of chasing a plane that is just about to get off the tarmac.
Yes it is just a film, but it is ‘based on a true story’. When it comes to portraying the Iranians though, the truth is dissolved into this massive misunderstanding of Iran’s people, their culture, as well as the political scenario in 1979. The Iranians are made to appear as less-than-human, with barbaric cultures and a desire to kill. How this will affect the 99% of Americans who view Iran as a threat already is not yet known, but seeing one’s fears realised in a movie that claims to be the ‘truth’, may just give a hint.
Argo is a clear-cut case of white American people being terrorised by mindless Middle Eastern fundamentalists. No one can argue against the fact that the hostage taking was a very condemnable act, and that the mock executions that the hostages had to go through, and the 444 days of uncertainty they had to endure were absolutely harrowing. However, the film gives very little time to even ponder on the reasons the Iranians broke into the embassy, or that the hostage taking was initially supposed to be a symbolic act and last only a few hours or so. The audience is given a well-done and overly short opening sequence which explains the removal of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh by the MI6 and the CIA in 1953. However, having once blamed the CIA of meddling in Iran’s affairs and deposing a democratic leader, the film makes sure to change this position later, by giving the CIA full credit for the ‘Canadian Caper’.
Argo has its spine-chilling moments, and periods of glory and humour (especially with Alan Arkin’s fictional Hollywood producer character Lester Siegel). However, it seriously clouds two very important aspects. First is Canada’s role in the operation. Argo gives the CIA practically all the credit, both directly and indirectly. Second, Argo does not try hard enough to give a human face to the country that America currently perceives as its biggest enemy. Yes, it is a movie, but why claim to be ‘based on a true story’, when the truth is almost entirely fabricated? As a fictional film, Argo holds up pretty well, but seriously, any film that claims to be based on the truth should at least try to stick to the facts and not demonise an entire race of people. Right?