Matt Steinglass reflects on a scene from Argo:
My favourite scene in “Argo” was the sequence towards the end of the film where Joe Stafford, the Farsi-speaking American-embassy officer (played by Scoot McNairy) pretending to be a film producer, explains the plot of the sci-fi movie he’s supposedly making to the Iranian revolutionary guards interrogating him and his fellow Americans at the Tehran airport as they try to get out of the country. The movie, he explains, is about a country of simple people who are being oppressed by evil space aliens. The hero rebels and, in the end, the people gather together to fight their oppressors, overthrow the aliens and return the country to the rule of decency and justice. “Star Wars”, in other words, but with a Middle Eastern backdrop. The clip is great because it depicts an American trying to tell a story that would be believable as a Hollywood film, and yet also acceptable to an Iranian revolutionary guard—one that would be politically persuasive to both an American and an Iranian audience. And part of what makes it stick in my head is that it’s not really clear whether it’s plausible, or whether it requires projecting an inaccurate American interpretive frame onto the Iranian guard. The language in which people talk about rebel uprisings against authoritarian oppressors is not the same everywhere as it is in America [bold mine-DL].
The last sentence is certainly true. Authoritarian regimes will usually view stories of successful rebellion as potentially threatening. Even so, it’s also important not to overlook that other regimes, especially those that claim to dedicated to the goals of a “revolution,” sometimes perceive themselves to be playing the part of an insurgent force. Even if these governments don’t have their origins in a war for independence from colonial rule, it is unlikely that they would identify themselves with the alien occupier in this story. As they see it, or at least as they claim to see it, they are the rebels.
I suspect that one reason why many Americans are so skeptical of taking sides in Syria’s civil war is that many of their leaders have repeatedly tried to sell foreign interventions to them using something very much like a Star Wars/Stargate story of a noble, outgunned rebellion combating the embodiment of all evil. Because that story is inevitably too simplistic and unrealistic, it is quickly discredited by rebel behavior and ideology, and future appeals for intervention are even harder to take seriously because of so many previous bad experiences. These sci-fi stories can be appealing to some extent because they treat regime change as a neat and tidy end of the story, which avoids having to think about what happens after the rebels win.