Argo is based on declassified information about a little-known episode during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980. A group of Islamist students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage for 444 days. The Iranians wanted the terminally ill Shah returned for trial from the US where he had been given asylum. US diplomats were ill-prepared for the waves of popular rage that crashed over the embassy walls, and which led to all US nationals inside being taken hostage. However, on the day of the occupation, six members of the staff managed to slip out unnoticed and found shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Argo tells the story of the CIA operation to smuggle these six diplomats out of Iran.
CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan for the group to pose as members of a Canadian film unit scouting locations for a science fiction film to be shot in Iran. In order to make the scheme convincing, it’s necessary to select an actual script (hence “Argo”), assemble a Hollywood production team and promote the planned film to the trade press. They generate documentation, storyboards and sundry media paraphernalia to convince the Iranian authorities that all is as it seems. Mendez enters Iran, posing as the film’s producer, and has to lead the group in their escape.
The film works fairly well as a thriller. One effective method of ratcheting up the tension was to have Iranian kids employed to sift through the paperwork the CIA had shredded before the embassy fell to see if they could find anything useful. We see at various stages the jigsaw coming together so that by the time the diplomats are heading to the airport, the authorities have a photograph of one of them. (I recall a similar technique used in an earlier political thriller from the 1980s – I can’t recall the name of the film but it may or may not have starred Robert Redford and if anyone is familiar with it please put me out of my misery! – which showed the a photograph of the hero, who was in danger, gradually crystallising from the pixels on the computer screen).
In terms of the drama, it would have been better had the film ended as the plane was leaving Iranian airspace and we would have been spared the sentimental backstory of the FBI agent and the commentaries at the end with the originals the characters are based on bringing us up to date with the characters’ stories – a dubious kind of plea for authenticity. (As often is the case in such films, there is a caption, “Based on a true story”, a special pleading that I find annoying). But as a genre piece, a hybrid of thriller, heist and caper movie, I found it quite successful. The cloak-and-dagger operation mounted by the CIA does make for an exciting film.
Another generic strand (or tone) in the film is comedy. Mendez recruits two Hollywood veterans, the affable makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), designer of Mr Spock’s ears for Star Trek, and the grizzled old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Their cynical humour (“You could teach a rhesus monkey to direct a film in a day,” Siegel states – a line which reminds me of Orson Welles’ daft statement about Citizen Kane that anyone could learn how to direct a film in a week) lightens the tension. Another such put-down of the Hollywood system occurs when Chambers asks Mendez when he first explains his plan. “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” The conspirators take to greeting each other with the catch-phrase, based on the title, “Argofuckyourself”
And so I found that the film worked fairly effectively on these levels. However, what I found somewhat far more problematic was the film’s overall portrayal of the hostage crisis. It fails to convey the idea that the USA in general and the CIA in particular were hated by wide layers of the population and for good reason. The success of the Shah’s brutal dictatorial regime depended upon its support by Washington. Now It’s true that the film opens with a brief summary of Britain and America’s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Dr Mosaddeq whose policy was to nationalise the oil. We are also shown footage of the Shah in a TV interview denying knowledge of the torture carried out by Savak, his secret police. And a CIA operative tells Mendez that when they were evacuating the Shah, the plane struggled to take off, such was the volume of stolen gold the Shah had taken onto the plane.
These serve to provide a veneer of objectivity to the film but what dominates throughout the rest of the film is something quite different. While the film invites us to empathise with the CIA hero and the diplomats and laugh at Hollywood’s antics, it also urges us view Iranians as the enemy. What struck me in particular was how the Iranian characters are not individualised in the film: they are seen just as “the mob”. We hear none of the debates taking place between different factions (including the secular left) that were taking place throughout the hostage crisis. The Iranian characters lack any real subjectivity. In a couple of key scenes where we see Iranians on screen, we are not given sub-titles. This first occurs in the market where Mendez takes the group to meet the Culture Ministry officials and they run into some local people who shout at them aggressively. We can probably guess what they’re on about but it would be useful to hear what they had to say. Another occasion was while the Americans were facing the final terrifying hurdle of the airport guards. While their officer does not play the clown à la Sacha Baron-Cohen like so many middle-eastern villains in Hollywood films, most of the little he has been given to say remains untranslated.
Coming out at a time when Israel is openly threatening to bomb Iran, and the American media have ramped up their campaign of fear-mongering, the film can’t help but seem to play into the hands of the most reactionary elements in the US ruling class. And given its box-office success, it has already had millions of viewers flocking to theatres to hear the story of how innocent Americans were victimized by the jihad-crazed Iranians and the CIA came in to save the day.
This despite the fact that Ben Affleck and, in particular, George Clooney, who initiated the project and is co-producer, have campaigned for liberal, even leftist causes. They supported radical historian Howard Zinn and before his death they campaigned to get a TV series adapted from his major work off the ground. (In Affleck and Matt Damon’s script for Good Will Hunting, they have the arrogant young genius played by Damon sneer at his Boston psychiatrist for “surrounding yourself with all the wrong fuckin’ books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass”). Clooney and Affleck seem oblivious to the fact that the film, whether they like it or not, has become part of the effort by the most reactionary elements in the American ruling class to drag the US into a war with Iran.
Is Affleck so desperate for a box office hit and a return to his star status which has been frittered away over the years in mediocre work that he blinds himself to the possible political effects of the film? Or is there something about the culture of Hollywood that makes so many artists vulnerable to pressures and moods and social forces that they may only be partially aware of?
The extract below takes place near the end of the film as the American diplomats have to negotiate the hurdle of the airport guards: