About ten times as many people are going to form an impression about Iran from Ben Affleck’s “Argo” than they are from any foreign policy blog. The film grossed over $35 million in its first two weeks, so by rough count that’s more than 3.5 million viewers. What impression might they get?
I should say at the outset that the movie was great — a real tribute to Affleck’s talent; he directed and starred as the U.S. intelligence agent who got six stranded diplomats out of Teheran during the hostage crisis. The Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy — depicted in a 10 or 15 minute sequence at the film’s opening — was riveting and terrifying.
The movie opens with a brief but needed historical backdrop — making it clear that the U.S. had a hand in overthrowing the elected nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, and installing in his place the boy-king Shah. The latter is presented as a pro-Western modernizer who tortured his opponents by the tens of thousands and flaunted a luxury that had nothing to do with the lives of ordinary Iranian. Tidbits from the ’70s I had long forgotten — the Shah’s penchant for having his meals flown in from Paris — are resurrected. It’s not enough to make one entirely sympathize with the Revolution, but surely to understand it a bit.
Of course, as revolutions tend to do, this one settled into score-settling and rough justice: we see plenty of terrified Iranians trying to get visas out of the country, and several horrific extra-judicial executions. The American Revolution was pretty much an exception: the French, Russian, Chinese revolutions were all bloodthirsty, and the Iranian no departure from the general rule.
Once the actual action begins, the viewer can’t help but view the revolutionaries as bad guys: they are threatening to kill American foreign service officers; they are paranoid about spies (however understandably); their seizure of the embassy was clearly illegal. But there are interesting countervailing touches: the Revolutionary Guards who seized the embassy were (and are so portrayed) as an educated group, including no small number of cadres who spoke perfect U.S. English, learned in American universities. The holding of diplomats hostage for 400 days was both an affront to America and a crime, and the “faked” executions to which some of the hostages were subjected is clearly a kind of psychological torture. But I always have thought it significant that the Iranians had enough self-control to not kill or physically harm the diplomat/hostages, and I’m very aware that most of the diplomats who went through the ordeal remain friends of Iran and are in no way proponents of bombing the place.
In the film’s final scenes at the Teheran airport, one of the Farsi-speaking Americans uses his knowledge of Iranian popular myths to deflect the suspicions of one of the bearded AK-47 toting Revolutionary Guards: it was a poignant scene which humanized Iranians of a certain type. Of course had the ruse not worked, the Americans at the departure gate would have been executed as spies.
So judging “Argo” for its politics, I’d give it a very high B; the Iranian Revolution is presented as bloody and dangerous, which it certainly was; Iran seems a place to be treated warily, as it surely should be. But there is no effort to dehumanize the Iranian “enemy”, an option which surely must have tempted at least some in Hollywood.
In short, I thought Hollywood and Ben Affleck gave an excellent account of themselves, producing a tense and realistic spy drama about a history which remains alive and highly relevant today, steering true to the actual historical context, keeping clear of vulgar jingoism or racist tropes. Even knowing the outcome of the movie in advance, our hearts soar when the Swissair jet lifts out of Iranian airspace, and the champagne is broken out. We can all be thankful we are not captives of revolutionary Iran. But we needn’t be eternal enemies with the place either.