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Ben Affleck's "Argo": A Movie about a Movie

[Detail of Argo film poster. Image via Wikimedia Commons.] [Detail of Argo film poster. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

Argo. Directed by Ben Affleck. USA, 2012.

1. Suspense and Espionage for a New Era

As the awarding of the Oscars draws near, one is reminded of what is not being said. The kerfuffle around Zero Dark Thirty's representations of torture has been interesting, but no less than the docile reception among reviewers and awards voters regarding the far more competitive of the film's set in West Asia, Ben Affleck's Argo.

At one level, Affleck has created a rousing espionage entertainment for our times. The story is based on the accounts of CIA operative Tony Mendez's smuggling—with the help of a Canadian diplomat—six Americans out of post-revolutionary Iran in midst of the US Embassy "hostage crisis." As the Cold War fades and James Bond grows long in the tooth, nothing could have been timelier for American moviegoers than an exciting tale in which a wily and fearless spy saves US citizens from Muslim fanatics, so it's not surprising that it brought in huge box office revenue. But critical acclaim for this "true story" was also nearly unanimous.

At the time of the storming of the United States Embassy in Tehran in late 1979, six American employees managed to exit the premises unnoticed before Iranian protesters overran the area. The group eventually found refuge in the Canadian Ambassador's residence. Mendez, a specialist in "exfiltration," or removal of individuals from dangerous situations, led an improbable operation in which he was able to smuggle all six of the employees out as they pretended to be a Canadian film crew that was location scouting for a cheesy Middle Eastern-themed science fiction film. As Argo jauntily depicts, initial steps toward actually putting a fake film into production were taken by Hollywood pros (played here by Alan Arkin and John Goodman) in order to facilitate the plot. The Americans made it back to the US and were celebrated upon their arrival by a public caught up in the drama that ABC News dubbed "America Held Hostage." At the time, however, the cathartic event was credited only to the ingenuity of the Canadians, since the CIA's central role in the caper remained classified for nearly two decades.

Affleck's film sets out to bring the CIA's role in the operation out of its obscurity. There's a deep irony in this project that no major reviewer of the film seems to have noticed. Iran experts broadly agree that there is a direct line between the CIA's overthrow of the progressive, nationalist, anti-colonial, and pro-democracy Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953—replaced by the ruthless dictatorial Shah, who remained in power until the 1979 revolution—and the storming of the US Embassy shortly after the Shah was deposed. Media studies experts have also documented that this link was systematically erased in the American public sphere's packaging of the story. (In this vein, Argo begins with an historical montage referring to the Mossadegh coup as precursor so briefly that no one with the bad luck of encountering a long popcorn line will catch it). The immediate cause of the storming of the US Embassy in late 1979 was overwrought protesters' anger over the Shah being given refuge in the United States after the revolution, but for the many Iranians who would not have agreed with the violation of the diplomatic sovereignty of the Embassy, there no doubt remained a creeping sense that the Embassy represented a threat to Iranian sovereignty and that the CIA would try once again to reinstate the Shah as it had done a quarter of a century earlier. Argo not only thrills its American viewers, it also proves that these Iranian suspicions were at least partially correct in that the CIA was active in Iran before, during, and after the revolution.

The emphases of the film include a focus on the character of Mendez, played by Affleck in a beard to cover his familiar square jaw; several sequences mocking Hollywood excess and superficiality; a light touch of 1970s nostalgia invoked via Van Halen songs, tear drop glasses, polyester, and swooshy hairdos; and a strong dose of vociferous and senseless Muslim rage, particularly resonant for 2012 American audiences. Reviews made much of the first three elements. But the ethics of such glib portrayals of irrational Muslim fanaticism were not broached by reviewers in North America.

2. Spoiler Alert: You Have Seen these Endings Before

Among the many reviews by major critics, readers should particularly appreciate the modicum of research done by Anthony Lane of The New Yorker. Not only did Lane correctly point out that the ending of the film drags on forever, adding another turn every time you think the story has finally reached its denouement, he was also perhaps the only major critic who fact checked the event in regard to its unbelievable elements. The most suspenseful moment of the film is a totally fabricated (not to mention preposterous) chase scene in which Iranians in police cars on an airport runway try to chase down a Swiss Air jet carrying Mendez and the six Americans as it takes off. The moment is nothing if not reminiscent of a wagon train outrunning a band of “savages” in a classic John Ford western. It is confusing at first when the successful take off does not inspire any relief. Instead, passengers warn each other not to celebrate too soon. Once the plane clears Iranian airspace, the moment is consecrated with an announcement from the cabin crew that alcohol can now be served, and in a perfect metaphor for the duel American fixation with consumption and self-medication that the Iranian revolution was somehow supposed to have threatened, the escapees finally, cathartically celebrate over the background noises of champagne corks popping and highball glasses clinking.

But of course, this is just one of several moments of culmination in Argo's painfully drawn out ending. Later we are treated to a scene of Mendez showing up at his home for the first time in the entire film to hug his estranged wife and his beloved son, a touching moment, which will no doubt call to mind for more sophisticated viewers Melani McAlister's brilliant reading of the American media's coverage of the "Iran hostage crisis." According to McAlister's analysis, the American media produced a sentimentalizing history by recasting the narrative of American geopolitical entanglements as ruptures in the scene of American domesticity. Argo is more interested in reordering geopolitical history, but this closing moment of familial bliss is an appropriate homage to the way the events were turned into domestic sentimentality in the pathos-ridden American coverage of the time.

3. Benghazi the Movie

Argo was released at a particularly interesting moment. It seemed to comment directly on what became the two major foreign policy talking points in the close presidential contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. In its depiction of Iranians as almost universally guileless and fanatical, it played into the discourse of "red lines" (Netanyahu) and "crippling sanctions" (Romney). Furthermore, the overrunning of the US Embassy had strange resonances with the Benghazi incident that was so incessantly and fatuously parsed by both sides of the presidential debate. Libya at the present moment is, in fact, a country soldiering forward toward a more democratic future, even though it has been stripped of functioning institutions by the abrupt decapitation of an all-powerful regime. Neither campaign, however, showed any willingness to acknowledge this substantial level of chaos and unpredictability on the ground in discussions of the incident, because to do so, would be to acknowledge the absence of American "full spectrum dominance" in the region.

Argo similarly tells a thrilling story that, by erasing historical context, creates the fiction that Americans controlled events in Iran in 1979-80, even though they didn't. Many reviewers praised the performance of Bryan Cranston as Affleck's immediate supervisor at the CIA, but no one has commented on how much he looks and sounds like Richard Crenna in the Rambo movies. As in the Rambo series, Argo puts Americans back in control of one of their greatest losses. And herein lies the truth of the doctrine of American full spectrum dominance. The Palestinian question, the Arab Spring, Syria, Islamism, the Iranian nuclear program, the Iraq occupation aftermath, all seem at first like difficult problems with complicated, multi-faceted, local, regional, and global historical factors,  and a panoply of agents at play. But if ever any of these events seem to spin out of American control, there's a simple solution: whether it's produced in Washington or Hollywood, just make it into a movie, and keep doing it, until everyone is convinced. 

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