The season of Oscar worthy films is upon us. Released on October 12, 2012, Ben Affleck’s third and probably most important directorial feat, Argo, is considered one of the top contenders for the Best Picture award. Set in revolutionary Iran in 1979, Argo is based on the true story of six Americans who escaped from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after it was overrun by Iranian hostage takers.
Argo is a gripping political thriller that will keep moviegoers on the edge of their seats. While it will certainly receive due attention from the Academy, the film provides anything but a balanced depiction of Iran and Iranians. In addition, by revisiting the Iran Hostage Crisis amid the increasing drums of war when Iran is subject to ceaseless demonization by political hawks, Argo unintentionally aids these efforts. Furthermore, crucial history relevant to understanding the crisis is neglected, thereby facilitating baseless parallels between 1979 Iran and recent events in Libya.
The film centers around Tony Mendez, a real-life character and CIA operative. Mendez concocts an elaborate plan to fly to Tehran and free American embassy officials holed up for months in the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Tehran. To enter Iran, Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, pretends to be part of a Canadian film crew scouting for locations to make a B-level science-fiction film set in the Middle East, called Argo.
Providing only limited historical backdrop at the beginning of the film, Argo describes the Anglo-American overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Muhammad Mossadeq, in 1953. Mossadeq’s overthrow led to the immediate reinstatement of Iran’s autocratic shah, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
Surprisingly, however, the film fails to show the very real relationship between the 1953 coup and the 1979 hostage crisis. Many viewers are left unaware of the fact that the coup was planned and orchestrated from the U.S. embassy in Tehran. No mention is made of the fact that revolutionaries in Iran seized the embassy because they feared that the Shah, who had recently arrived in the U.S. for cancer treatment, would be restored to power by way of yet another coup spearheaded through the very same embassy.
Revisiting this history is not meant to condone or justify hostage taking. Rather, it underscores the inappropriate nature of parallels being made between the U.S. Hostage Crisis and last month’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which claimed the lives of four Americans. By drawing such baseless connections, politicians, such as U.S. presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, are marginalizing the critical history preceding the Hostage Crisis for personal political gain.
The film’s shortcomings extend beyond its selective treatment of history. For example, while providing nuanced and sensitive depictions of its American characters, Argo presents Iran exclusively through the lens of terrorism and hostage-taking, public executions, bearded men shouting so hysterically spit flies from their mouths, and other one-dimensional, unflattering portrayals. For instance, the film repeatedly focuses on large and enraged crowds of seemingly irrational protesters, thereby reducing an entire country to a singular mob mentality. The only Iranian toward which the viewer is supposed to be sympathetic is a servile housekeeper.
In his book Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East, Professor Ali Ansari writes, “For the US, the traumatic scene of Americans being paraded in front of cameras blindfolded, marked the beginning of a U.S. obsession with Iran.” That obsession has led many Americans to view Iran strictly through the narrow scope of the Hostage Crisis. So ubiquitous is this trend that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran in 2005, mainstream American media outlets mistook him for one of the hostage takers. The frenzy dissipated only when one of the American hostages, Thomas E. Schaefer, refuted the accusation.
Through its unbalanced depiction of its Iranian characters, Argo presents the people of Iran as violent, angry, and hostile toward the U.S. In doing so, it undermines and discounts the basic humanity and everyday struggles that Iranians have long shared with the rest of the world. In this way, Argo is a distinct foil to the Academy Award winning film, A Separation – a riveting story about a husband and wife torn apart by real-life struggles in Iran. The contrast in how Iran is portrayed in these two films is immense.
A telling example of the difference and its effects can be found in the reception A Separation received in Israel, where it was a surprise hit. After being fed a steady diet of anti-Iranian news and media portrayals, A Separation resonated with Israeli viewers, many of whom were surprised to learn that “everyone had a fridge and a washing machine.” After viewing the film, one Israeli movie critic observed, “Ultimately you don’t think about nuclear bombs or dictators threatening world peace. You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us.” Indeed, Iranians are not that different if people are willing to see beyond the harmful stereotypes.
My intention is not to whitewash the radicalism and show trials of Iran’s fiery revolutionary days, or to imply that the country’s current human rights record is a shining example for the world to follow. The first step toward war is, however, denying the humanity of the other. Argo is an unwitting part of that effort. Iranians, like everyone else, worry about the future of their children, care about the health of their parents, and yes, own “fridges” and “washing machines.” As Asghar Farhadi, the director of A Separation, reminded Americans in his masterful Oscar acceptance speech:
At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country Iran is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.
To avoid another catastrophic war in the Middle East, it is imperative that we eschew the narrow, one-dimensional approach to Iran embodied in Argo, recognize the basic humanity of the Iranian people, and move beyond the oppressively limiting, dangerous and outdated “us versus them” paradigm. We must maintain a better grasp on history so we don’t fall victim to the chicanery of politicians who ignore historical fact for political gain.
*Pouya Alimagham is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan’s history program. You can follow him at @iPouya.