Argo and Orientalism
The 2013 film Argo, winner of the Oscar award for best picture, is based on the true story of six American diplomats who escaped the 1979 takeover and siege of the U.S. embassy by Iranian students. The diplomats were approached by CIA agent Tony Mendez and asked asked to buy into an improbable cover story to get them out Iran: pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for an elaborate science fiction film entitled Argo.
The film demonstrates earnest attempts to comment on the troubled relationship between the U.S. and Iran and grievances of individual Iranians at the time of the revolution, as well as Orientalist views of the East as inferior and barbaric. Its opening montage, for example, explains how the U.S. overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected government and installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah, who then proceeded to brutalize and torture political opponents while treating himself and his wife to opulent Western luxury. Several observers, however, have nevertheless complained about the film’s Orientalism – its unsympathetic characterization of Iranians as full of “mindless rage,” (1) for example, or its effective silencing of Iranian voices by not subtitling their dialogue spoken in Farsi. (2)
At stake is an assessment of the film’s ideological and moral commitments. In the case of Argo, I think we can ascribe the complaints about the film in part to the fact that the film undermined the rhetorical consciousness it began with – that is, to be a serious take on an important moment in U.S. history and foreign relations.
Worrying about how the caper will turn out and the possibilities for deadly failure, the producer of the fake film, Lester Siegel, misquotes Marx (Karl, not Groucho) when he wonders if history starts as farce, and then ends in tragedy. The narrative of Argo, as it turns out, is closer to Marx’s original formulation. The film begins on the tragic notes of U.S.’s efforts to prop up the corrupt and iron-fisted Shah of Iran in order to preserve access to oil resources, and the subsequent Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis. Much of the film, with its grainy film stock, warm colors and tones, and close-ups of brooding espiocrats and bureaucrats in smoke filled rooms evokes the gravitas of 1970s political thrillers such as All The President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor. The last scenes, however, bring to mind the feel of a summer blockbuster, special effects-filled popcorn movie, bringing the film to a close with a farcical sequence that ruins the credibility of the film. Taking narrative license with historical events, the film inserts a fabricated subplot by which a last minute discovery of the identity of the six diplomats prompts furious Revolutionary Guards to chase the Swissair 747 they have boarded down the runway as it takes off. The sight of an army truck, replete with frantically waving Guardsmen and a gun mounted to the top, as well as two police vehicles, matching speed with a jumbo jet at full thrust at the end of its takeoff roll, is comical in its implausibility. The absurd resolution that is offered to the audience weakens the film’s credibility and leaves its treatment of historical issues surrounding the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis meaningless.
Such narrative license and fabrication is not objectionable per se. Filmmakers are in the business of entertaining and thrilling their audiences, and there is little chance that the most successful of them will let history stand in their way. But Argo asked its audience to take it seriously – to consider that, even if it wasn’t absolutely historically accurate, it at least got at the spirit of the truth. (3) It invited its audience to infer a production team who wanted to make a taut political thriller about an important event in the history of U.S. relations with Iran and the Middle East, and who wanted to make a commentary about the West’s view of the East in general. Instead, the film lures the audience into its cinematic and narrative confidence game. The imperatives of Hollywood storytelling have driven the film towards farce and sentimentality, and thus the audience is lured into putting their faith in this film’s ultimately skewed understanding of this historical event. The result is a continuation of the metanarrative that America, and the West, still wield their cultural and political hegemony over Iran and the East.
Next post: more on Argo as a Hollywood con.
(1) Juan Cole, “’Argo as Orientalism and Why It Upsets Iranians,” Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, February 26, 2013, http://www.juancole.com/2013/02/orientalism-upsets-iranians.html (accessed October 24, 2013).
(2) Sarah Gillespie, “Argo and The Iranian Savage – A Film Review,” The Palestine Chronicle, November 27, 2012, http://www.palestinechronicle.com/argo-and-the-iranian-savage-a-film-review/ (accessed October 24, 2013).
(3) At a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Argo had its premiere, Affleck defended the film’s liberties with historical events: “Because we say it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story,” he said, “we’re allowed to take some dramatic licence. There’s a spirit of truth.” Brian D. Johnson, “Ben Affleck Rewrites History: ‘Argo’ Shifts the Spotlight From Ken Taylor, our Man in Tehran, to CIA Spy Tony Mendez.” Maclean’s, September 12, 2012, http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/09/12/ben-affleck-rewrites-history/ (accessed October 22, 2013).