Argo, Ben Affleck’s gripping, highly entertaining and commercially successful thriller, depicts a little-known episode within the infamous 444-day hostage crisis that followed the Iranian Revolution. Without necessarily intending to be, the film is also one of the most effective pieces of US propaganda to have emerged from Hollywood in recent years.
On 4 November 1979, 52 staff are captured during the take-over of the American embassy by supporters of the new Khomeini regime. Yet six US diplomats manage to escape. Sought by the Iranian secret police and sheltered by the Canadian ambassador, they are later “exfiltrated” out of Iran in an improbable CIA operation, which has them pose as members of a Canadian film crew on a location-scout for a fake science fiction blockbuster—Argo.
Argo recounts this close cooperation between Hollywood and the US government. In order to make the CIA’s contrived cover plausible, the film industry supplies a front studio that gives every appearance of genuinely making the film. This hoodwinks the Iranian authorities, including its Ministry of Culture.
It’s revealing that Affleck’s film does not merely celebrate Hollywood’s collaboration with the US state: ironically, Argo becomes another example of such collusion in the context of 21st century foreign relations, very effectively engineering a perception of Iran that justifies current US policy towards it. It paints a picture of ordinary Iranians as irrational and violent religious zealots, in the service of Islamic clerics like Ayatollah Khomeini, who eventually took power following the revolution.
No balanced view
However, the film is not completely silent on the aspects of modern Iran that fit less easily with the received US propaganda picture. Affleck did Middle Eastern Studies in the year he spent at university. Presumably he, along with George Clooney who co-produced the film, sees himself as having a sophisticated and balanced view on the subject.
Argo does in fact start with a brief yet informative historical overview: from millennia of Persian kings; to the arrival of British oil interests early in the 20th century; the 1950 election of left-nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq whose central policy is oil nationalisation; the CIA orchestrated coup three years later aimed at re-installing Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as a key regional ally; and the West’s decades long support for Pahlavi’s brutal armed repression of political opponents.
Argo’s opening scenes are sympathetic to the angry mass protest at the US Embassy over the Carter administration’s refusal to repatriate the deposed Shah to face trial. One embassy employee quips, “If we gave him over, we’d lose the trust of our other dictator friends”. As the Iranians invade the embassy, the viewer can also find amusement in the fact that the primary preoccupation of besieged embassy officials is the shredding of sensitive confidential documents.
Yet once the film’s focus shifts to the six Americans who manage to escape, ordinary Iranians, like those in Tehran’s bazaar, are portrayed as either an irrational violent mob, or as bumbling simpletons, like the airport security duped by the explanation of Argo’s “plot” in a concocted scene towards the end.
On the rare occasions that Iranian people actually speak, their Farsi isn’t subtitled. The only Iranians capable of rational deliberation are the menacing security agents charged with tracking down the six embassy staff. The film’s only “good Iranian” is the Canadian ambassador’s beautiful housemaid, who refuses to betray the Americans. The significant role played by the left in the Iranian revolution is completely omitted, and by the end of the film, any impression of a more progressive Iran has been entirely overlaid by the subsequent grotesque caricature of a violent, threatening rogue state.
The good guys
By contrast, the film’s hero is the charismatic and selfless CIA operative Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), whose duty for his country has seen him sacrifice relationships with his wife and son. An interview Affleck did with Agence France Presse is very revealing: “It was really inspiring to meet Tony,” Affleck said. “He was steeped in this movie. It was Tony’s story, Tony’s point of view.”
In one of the most remarkable indictments of the film’s ideology, the final on-screen text relating the characters’ eventual fate hails the US-Canadian cooperation in the operation as a model of “cooperation” among the family of nations. This is rather like praising Exxon or Shell for advances in managing oil-spills!
Moreover, America’s re-installation of the Shah in 1953, and its refusal to take any steps to bring him to justice were serious affronts to the very concepts of global justice and international cooperation that the film claims it wholeheartedly served. In this context, praise for US-Canadian cooperation is an ironic measure of Affleck’s failure to see through convenient myths about the nature of American power.
According to a classic mechanism of censorship and propaganda, ideological control is most successfully exercised when the censoring authority doesn’t even need to specifically instruct its propaganda agents on the required message.
Argo goes a step even further than this. Affleck and his collaborators seem to have thought that they were offering a balanced, somewhat pro-Iranian version of an important episode in American international relations. But the received US propaganda account is so deeply entrenched in their minds that they flawlessly reinforce it, while apparently believing they are doing something quite different.
Directed by Ben Affleck
In cinemas now
By Nick Riemer and Mark Goudkamp