Student demonstration, Washington, D.C., November 9, 1979
(Marion S. Trikosko)
Ben Affleck's new film, Argo, hit theaters today. It tells the tale of six American diplomats who, having escaped the besieged Embassy in Tehran in late 1979 and taken shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, were successfully smuggled out of Iran in a daring Hollywood-produced CIA operation under the guise of being a Canadian film crew.
From the movie trailer, one can tell a great many things. The story is fascinating, the plot suspenseful and action-packed. Yet there are worrying signs that the events depicted will present a rather decontextualized and myopic perspective of Iranian actions in the wake of their revolution.
"The actions of Iran have shocked the civilized world," President Jimmy Carter declared two weeks after the embassy's occupation during a November 28, 1979 press conference. This was coming from the leader of the nation whose operatives orchestrated a coup d'etat 26 years earlier to overthrow the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh for the crime of nationalizing his country's oil industry and which funded and supported the brutal Pahlavi dictatorship for the next quarter century. Civilized, indeed.
A video of Carter speaking those very words opens Argo's trailer which is replete with sinister music, angry bearded mobs, clenched fists pumping the air, sounds of gunfire, glaring portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and plenty of hand-wringing, hapless, innocent Americans and the concerned, humanitarian heroes of Tinsel Town and the Central Intelligence Agency who saved them.
The mastermind behind the clandestine mission featured in the film is CIA operative Tony Mendez, portrayed by Affleck himself. In a short clip of the movie shown on The Daily Show, Mendez is described as an "exfil[tration] spec[ialist]" who "got a lot of the Shah's people out after the fall." What a hero.
The issue is not that hostage-taking is legitimate or moral or that amazing true stories shouldn't be made into big budget movies. It's not and they should be. The issue here is context. Without it, Manichean views of the world - with good guys and bad guys neatly identified - continue to prevail. At a time of especially heightened tension between Iran, the United States, and now Canada, films like Argo - with its narrative of American victimhood and Middle Eastern rage - certainly do no favors.
I have not seen this film. I could be wrong about all this. Argo may very well include a nuanced and sophisticated exploration of the causes behind the Iranian Revolution and U.S. government decisions leading up to the hostage crisis, but then again, it might not. *
In an interview at the Toronto Film Festival, Affleck said, "While the [action portrayed in the] movie is 30 years old, it really is still relevant. Both in the sense that it's about the unintended consequences of revolution and in the sense that we're dealing with the exact same issues now than we were then."
Earlier this week, Affleck joined blowhard ignoramus Bill O'Reilly on Fox News to discuss the film. In describing Argo, Affleck said, "You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it's a thriller. It's actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It's a complicated CIA movie, it's a political movie. And it's all true."
Surviving Christmas and Reindeer Games contradicted himself completely: "To me, I made a movie that my friends who are Democrats and my friends who are Republicans can both watch. It's not a political movie."
Affleck also spent much of his time praising the U.S. intelligence and foreign service agents, including those who actively worked against the popular revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy. "[T]his is really a tribute to the folks in our clandestine services, and diplomats in the foreign service who are risking their lives over there, tragically seeing examples of that very recently. And folks who are -- what they give up to serve us and to serve our country." He added, "I've been to the CIA. I met General David Petraeus. These are extraordinary honorable people at the CIA. Make no mistake about it."
O'Reilly summed it up: "This is a Valentine from Ben Affleck to the Intelligence Community," he declared.
Affleck also demonstrated a dizzying fealty to alarmist misinformation over the Iranian nuclear program. If the "Stalinist-Islamist regime," he warned, "got a bomb, I think everybody thinks that would be trouble." Affleck then proceeded to opine that "Israel is not entirely capable of whacking them to the extent in which they need to be whacked." Read that again.
He continued, "And I wouldn't outsource U.S. foreign policy to any other government...However, we have to have a line beyond which we say this is not acceptable in Iran." It didn't take much for O'Reilly to draw out what his Fox News audience most wanted to hear. "I wouldn't oppose military action," Affleck obliged.
Considering its filmmaker's perspective, there's a good chance Argo may not present a particularly erudite understanding of the events of Autumn 1979, despite the fact that the film itself opens with a quick review of Iranian history and the revolution.
With this in mind, there is some vital context that might - I repeat, might - be missing from Argo which every theatergoer should know in order to better contextualize what they'll be watching this weekend:
Tyranny and Terror Under the Shah, Bankrolled by the U.S.
Jimmy Carter and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Tehran 1977
For most Americans, the history of Iranian-U.S. relations began on November 4, 1979, the day revolutionary students seized control of the American Embassy in Tehran. According to the American narrative, one November morning - out of the blue - some crazy Iranian fanatics seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held dozens of innocent Americans hostage for 444 days because they were mean and hated Americans for no reason.
Here's some of what's missing:
The United States of America backed, armed and supported the tyrannical rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, for more than 25 years.
While between 1950 and 1963, the United States provided $829 million in military assistance to the Shah, in addition to $1.3 billion worth of new weapons systems, funding grew exponentially when Richard Nixon (who, as Eisenhower's Vice President, had visited Iran shortly after the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup that restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne and was convinced of the Shah's suitability as a regional policeman for U.S. interests in the Middle East) took office as President 15 years later. In the words of Nixon's National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, describing an agreement made between the American president and the Shah of Iran in May 1972, "we adopted a policy which provides, in effect, that we will accede to any of the Shah's requests for arms purchases from us (other than some sophisticated advanced technology armaments and with the very important exception, of course, of any nuclear weapons capability)."
Between 1970 and 1978, the United States bankrolled the Shah's massive military buildup, agreeing to sell Iran $20 billion worth of sophisticated and powerful weaponry, including 80 F-14s, 169 Northrop F-5E an F-5F fighter planes, 209 McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, 160 General Dynamics F-16 fighters, 202 Bell Ah-IJ Cobra helicopter gunships, 326 troop-transporting helicopters, and 25,000 antitank missiles. At the time, Massachusetts Congressman Gerry E. Studds called the arms transfers "the most rapid buildup of military power under peacetime conditions of any nation in the history of the world" and journalist Michael Klare wrote, "Never...have arms transfer played such a central role in U.S. foreign policy as they did in Iran." By the time the Shah was overthrown by the Iranian Revolution, the U.S. had already delivered at least $9 billion worth of armaments.
Throughout the 1970's, Iran was the leading recipient of American weapons in the developing world; and by the end of the decade, thousands of American civilian contractors, trainers and advisers were working closely with the Iranian military. It has been reported that "[i]n total, during the 1970s Iran spent about 27 percent of its budget on the military and more than one-third of these purchases came from the United States" and that "[b]etween 1973-1978 Iranian military orders averaged $3.2 billion per year, representing on average 28 percent of all U.S. foreign military sales worldwide."
As late as 1977, President Jimmy Carter, speaking at a New Years Eve state dinner, called the Shah's Iran "an island of stability" in an otherwise turbulent Middle East. The American president declared, "This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you,"and later claimed, "The cause of human rights is one that also is shared deeply by our people and by the leaders of our two nations."
Noting the "irreplaceable" friendship between Iran and the United States, Carter stressed, "We have no other nation on Earth who is closer to us in planning for our mutual military security. We have no other nation with whom we have closer consultation on regional problems that concern us both. And there is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship."
Carter said this at a time when in Iran, under the Shah, "dissent was ruthlessly suppressed, in part by the use of torture in the dungeons of SAVAK, the [American and Israeli-trained] secret police," Time magazine reported after the revolution, adding:
The depth of its commitment to the Shah apparently blinded Washington to the growing discontent. U.S. policymakers wanted to believe that their investment was buying stability and friendship; they trusted what they heard from the monarch, who dismissed all opposition as 'the blah-blahs of armchair critics.'Such commitment to the belief in the Shah's "stability" and inevitable longevity was evidenced in many U.S. intelligence assessments at the time. For example, as Jeffrey T. Richelson recalls in Wizards of Langley: "A sixty-page CIA study completed in August 1977, Iran in the 1980s, had asserted that 'there will be no radical change in Iranian political behavior in the near future' and that 'the Shah will be an active participant in the Iranian life well into the 1980s.'
A mere eighteen months before the revolution began, the Inspector General of the U.S. Foreign Service concluded, "There is no effective internal challenge to [the Shah's] leadership." Another CIA report from mid-1978 and entitled "Iran After the Shah," affirmed that "Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a 'prerevolutionary' situation."
As Time pointed out in its January 7, 1980 report:
Even after the revolution began, U.S. officials were convinced that 'there is no alternative to the Shah.' Carter took time out from the Camp David summit in September 1978 to phone the Iranian monarch and assure him of Washington's continued support.Popular street demonstrations against the Shah's rule became frequent throughout Iran in 1978 (as was the killing of protesters by government forces) and, eventually, many cities were placed under martial law. During a peaceful demonstration in Tehran on September 8, 1978, government security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing and wounding hundreds.
Nevertheless, that very month, the U.S. State Department expressed its confidence that the Shah would retain his control over Iran, though perhaps without "the same position of unquestioned authority he formerly enjoyed."
At the same time that nationwide strikes spread throughout bazaars, banks, the oil and gas industry, newspapers, customs and post offices, mining and transportation sectors, as well as most universities and high schools, an "Intelligence Assessment" released by the Defense Intelligence Agency declared that the Shah "is expected to remain actively in power over the next ten years."
As the Shah's position continued to weaken, there were many in Washington who encouraged more brutal tactics to put down dissent and restore the monarchy to unquestioned authority and stability. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, was an advocate of this "iron fist" approach. As recalled by Henry Precht, the State Department's Iran Desk Director at the time, Brzezinski and others were advising the Shah "to send troops out and shoot down as many people as necessary and bring an end to the rebellion once and for all."
On October 27, 1978, as the revolution surged, the CIA issued another report, this one suggesting that "the political situation [in Iran] is unlikely to be clarified at least until late next year when the Shah, the Cabinet, and the new parliament that is scheduled to be elected in June begin to interact on the political scene." Still, U.S. Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan maintained, "It is our destiny to work with the Shah."
Shortly thereafter, on November 2, 1978, President Carter wrote in his diary, "The shah expressed deep concern about whether to set up an interim government, a military government, or perhaps even to abdicate. We encouraged him to hang firm and count on our backing." Four days later, he wrote, "Over the weekend, I sent the shah a message that whatever action he took, including setting up a military government, I would support him. We did not want him to abdicate, which he had threatened to do. He is not a strong leader but very doubtful and unsure of himself." (White House Diary, p. 257-8)
Going so far as to consider empowering the Iranian military to stage a coup to save the Shah's reign in early 1979, Carter insisted, "We are sticking with the shah until we see a clear alternative." (p. 272)
Just a few weeks later, in the face of a massive popular uprising representing the end of millennia of monarchy in Iran, the Shah and his wife Farah fled Iran in early 1979, never to return. They flew to Egypt, where they received a warm welcome by Anwar Sadat.
Following the Shah's departure, the transitional Iranian government immediately cut ties with two countries: Apartheid South Africa and the State of Israel, both nations founded on the violent dispossession, forced displacement, and institutionalized discrimination against an indigenous population.
Despite the leading role it had played in propping up the Shah's dictatorship for so long, Iran did not break off relations with the United States in the hopes of ushering in a new diplomatic relationship based on mutual respect.
Catalyzing the Crisis
Jimmy Carter, April 25, 1980 (AP)
Later that year, in October 1979, the Shah sought medical treatment in the United States for his worsening cancer, the interim government of Iran warned the U.S. against admitting the Shah as it wished for the deposed dictator to face trial and justice in Iran for his crimes against the Iranian people. When asked whether it would be problematic if the Shah's young children to enter the United States for schooling, Iran's secular Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzargan, responded that such would not create any difficulties, but still "reiterated his warning about the dangers of admitting the shah himself."
President Carter had to make a decision and asked the advice of his closest advisers. "He went around the room, and most of us said, 'Let him in.'" recalls Vice President Walter Mondale. "And he said, 'And if [the Iranians] take our employees in our embassy hostage, then what would be your advice?' And the room just fell dead. No one had an answer to that. Turns out, we never did."
It is rumored, however, that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and Undersecretary of State David Newsom all tried to hedge their bets and prevent the Shah's admission to the U.S. in the hopes that it would help mend relations with the new transitional government in Tehran.
In favor of admission, on the other hand, were National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Chase Bank chairman David Rockefeller, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and former World Bank president John J. McCloy, who had served as Assistant Secretary of War during World War II and U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, who were collectively dubbed "influential friends of the Shah" by Brzezinski himself. Apparently, Brzezinski personally "felt strongly that at stake were [the United State’s] traditional commitment to asylum and our loyalty to a friend. To compromise those principles would be to pay an extraordinarily high price not only in terms of self-esteem but also in our standing among our allies…."
In response to such lobbying by the Shah's good buddies, President Carter acquiesced to the Shah's demands on October 21, 1979. The very next day, Pahlavi and his family arrived in New York City on October 22, 1979 aboard Rockefeller's private jet.
Reporting in The New York Times in May 1981 following the Shah's death and state funeral in Egypt, Dr. Lawrence K. Altman wrote that, from this decision "flowed a chain of events that dramatically reshaped recent American history and led, all too inevitably, to the 444 days of the hostage crisis."
Henry Precht, the senior Iranian task-force officer at the State Department, who was then in Iran, is quoted in Altman's article as saying that "the initial reaction of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Iranians was ''exceptionally controlled.'' Precht added, however, "But one had the feeling that the Iranians, always suspicious, now sensed that they had indeed been duped and that the Shah had come to the United States not for medical treatment but to set up counterrevolutionary headquarters." In response, Altman reveals, a group of Iranian students met "in a small mountain village above Teheran to determine what action they would take to vent their fury at the Shah's admission to the United States."
Following the seizure of the Embassy and the taking of hostages, a reporter asked Carter why he had reversed his previous position and permitted the Shah to enter the U.S. when "medical treatment was available elsewhere [and] you had been warned by our chargé that the Americans might be endangered in Tehran." Carter replied that he has made "the right decision" and had "no regrets about it nor apologies to make." He said:
"The decision that I made, personally and without pressure from anyone, to carry out the principles of our country, to provide for the means of giving the Shah necessary medical assistance to save his life, was proper."Carter's humanitarian mission to save Iranian lives was apparently limited to that of a single corrupt despot, a puppet dictator that served Washington's hegemonic designs in the Middle East for decades. The lives of Iranian civilians who suffered under the Shah's rule and American largesse, however, had not been considered worth saving.
Decades of Torture and Repression
Iranian student demonstration in Tehran, December 15, 1979
The Shah's Organisation of Intelligence and National Security, known by its Farsi acronym SAVAK, acted as the dictator's personal secret police force, was tasked with suppressing dissent and opposition to the monarchy. Created in 1957 with the help of American and Israeli intelligence agents, the SAVAK grew in size and brutality and, as journalist Marsha Cohen points out, included "thousands of informers, censorship, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and widespread torture and assassination of political opponents. A censorship office monitored journalists, academics and writers, and kept a watchful eye on students. The penalty for possession of forbidden books included interrogation, torture and long term imprisonment."
In 1976, according to Amnesty International, the Shah's Iran had the "highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief." The report concluded, "No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran." The number of political prisoners detained at any given point was reportedly "anything between 25,000 and 100,000."
The same year, renowned Iranian poet and author Reza Baraheni wrote in the New York Review of Books, "The CIA re-created the monarchy, built up the SAVAK and trained all its prominent members, and stood by the Shah and his secret police as their powerful ally. Iran became the police state it is now."
Thousands of men and women have been summarily executed during the last twenty-three years. More than 300,000 people have been in and out of prison during the last nineteen years of the existence of SAVAK; an average of 1,500 people are arrested every month. In one instance alone, American-trained counterinsurgency troops of the Iranian Army and SAVAK killed more than 6,000 people on June 5, 1963.In another article, Baraheni wrote that "[c]orruption is so widespread that threats of jailing, even shooting, cannot solve the problem, because at the heart of corruption are the Shah himself and the royal family."
The Associated Press also ran a story about the abusive, and sometimes lethal, treatment of prisoners by the SAVAK as reported by the Red Cross, which had gained access to "5,000 inmates in 37 jails and prisons" over three separate visits to Iran between March 1977 and February 1978.
Both the United States and Israel played a large role in the SAVAK's activities. As Robert Fisk points out in his book The Great War For Civilisation, "A permanent secret US mission was attached to Savak headquarters."
"Methods of interrogation" often used by SAVAK, writes Fisk, "included - apart from the conventional electric wires attached to genitals, beating on the soles of feet and nail extraction---rape and 'cooking,' the latter a self-explanatory form of suffering in which the victim was strapped to a bed of wire that was then electrified to become a red-hot toaster...They recorded that the inmates had been beaten, burned with cigarettes and chemicals, tortured with electrodes, raped, sodomised with bottles and boiling eggs. Interrogators forced electric cables into the uterus of female prisoners. The Red Cross report named 124 prisoners who had died under torture."
Jesse Leaf, a former high-level CIA analyst involved with the agency's operations in Iran until his resignation in 1973, revealed years later "that the CIA sent an operative to teach interrogation methods to SAVAK" in seminars that "were based on German torture techniques from World War II." While no Americans admitted to witnessing torture, Leaf recalled "seeing and being told of people who were there seeing the rooms and being told of torture. And I know that the torture rooms were toured and it was all paid for by the USA." When asked why none of the American agents protested such brutality, Leaf explained, "Why should we protest? We were on their side, remember?"
Furthermore, according to Iranian scholar R.K. Ramazani, "Mossad was totally identified with the Shah's CIA-created SAVAK. This was the principal instrument of the regime's repressive measures, which included physically punishing religious and secular political dissidents by electric shock, tearing out of fingernails and toenails, rape, and genital torture."
In early January 1980, an Associated Press report noted that the "Iranian militants...holding some 50 Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran...say they will not release them until Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is returned to Iran to stand trial on charges of corruption and other crimes - including the reported torture." The article continued, "The Iranian government has demanded an international hearing of its grievances against the shah and his former government."
When asked about these demands by the press, President Carter replied:
I don't know of any international forum within which charges have ever been brought against a deposed leader who has left his country. There have been instances of changing governments down through the centuries in history, and I don't know of any instance where such a leader, who left his country after his government fell, has been tried in an international court or in an international forum...
But as I said earlier, I don't think there's any forum that will listen to the Iranians make any sort of claim, justified or not, as long as they hold against their will and abuse the hostages, in complete contravention to every international law and every precept or every commitment or principle of humankind.Within three weeks of the Embassy takeover, about a dozen women and African-Americans were released by the Iranian students in what Khomeini called an act of solidarity with oppressed minority groups in the U.S. Later, a sick hostage was also released. None of the hostages were killed.
Open Hands and Iron Fists
In his January 23, 1980 State of the Union address, Jimmy Carter described Iranian actions as "shocking and violates the moral and the legal standards of a civilized world" and the American hostages as "innocent victims of terrorism and anarchy." He condemned the post-revolutionary government for provoking an "unwarranted Iranian quarrel with the United States."
The following month, a reporter asked Carter, "Mr. President, do you think it was proper for the United States to restore the Shah to the throne in 1953 against the popular will within Iran?" Carter was dismissive in his reply. "That's ancient history," he said, "and I don't think it's appropriate or helpful for me to go into the propriety of something that happened 30 years ago."
Clearly, dismissing the grievances of the Iranian people, subject to a U.S.-backed dictatorship for 25 years, had consequences.
The remaining 52 American hostages were released a year later upon the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in January 1981, in accordance with the Algiers Accord, an agreement signed by both Iran and the United States. Upon meeting with the freed hostages, Carter declared, "The acts of barbarism which were perpetrated on our people by Iran can never be condoned. It has been an abominable circumstance that will never be forgotten."
Shortly after the hostage-taking, President Carter imposed sanctions upon Iran and had frozen billions of dollars of Iranian government assets in an act that one U.S. official described as "economic and political warfare." The Accord assured Iran that all assets would be returned; to date, the U.S. has never complied with this agreement.
The Accord also affirms, as its primary point, that the "United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs."
Since then, not only did the U.S. government renege on this promise two years later when it again imposed sanctions on Iran, it has continued to violate the agreement through relentless and inhumane economic warfare, drone surveillance, covert operations, support for Iranian terrorist groups, and cyber attacks, not to mention the sporadic murder of Iranian civilians.
In March 2009, President Obama delivered a Nowruz message to Iranians and their government in which he declared that his new "administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community" and affirmed that the "process will not be advanced by threats." Just nine days before this message, however, Obama had announced the extension of economic sanctions on Iran imposed by President Clinton in March 1995 and were set to expire.
Subsequently, Obama has imposed ever more brutal sanctions on the Iranian people, increased arms sales to Iran's Middle East neighbors, substantially built-up America's own armaments and warship presence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, expanded covert operations in the region (and in Iran specifically), and has consistently maintained the aggressive posture that "all options are on the table" when it comes to dealing with Iran, code for the willingness of the American executive to commit the supreme international crime of launching a voluntary war.
Nevertheless, this weekend, moviegoers will be treated to a full dose of Western diplomats running scared from angry Middle Eastern mobs, unwitting victims of seemingly irrational rage. Even though Argo's audience will obviously be rooting for the daring rescue to succeed, it's still essential to understand what all those Iranians might have been so upset about.
The day this piece was posted, Rolling Stone published an extensive interview with Affleck about his career, family life, and the making of Argo. Affleck's comments about the film and his understanding of the historical context in which it takes place is revealing.
For instance, after boasting that he knew he "absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story," Affleck answers a question about what he thinks the Iranian reaction to the movie will be this way:
Who the FUCK knows – who knows if their reaction is going to be anything? This is still the same Stalinist, oppressive regime that was in place when the hostages were taken. There was no rhyme or reason to this action. What's interesting is that people later figured out that Khomeini just used the hostages to consolidate power internally and marginalize the moderates and everyone in America was going, "What the fuck's wrong with these people?" You know, "What do they want from us?" It was because it wasn't about us. It was about Khomeini holding on to power and being able to say to his political opponents, of which he had many, "You're either with us or you're with the Americans" – which is, of course, a tactic that works really well. That revolution was a students' revolution. There were students and communists and secularists and merchants and Islamists, it's just that Khomeini fucking slowly took it for himself.Yes, that's right. He says, "There was no rhyme or reason to this action." But remember, he just had to preserve truth and integrity.
He continues (demonstrating his total reliance on Western talking points to inform his understanding of Iranian politics and governmental system):
What's ironic is that this system of government is really not all that different from the Shah's. You have one guy who makes all the decisions. It's a very unpopular regime. It stays in power by oppression. You have a titular, bullshit, civilian government that's virtually meaningless. People say that they're between 10 and 15 percent support in Iran. You got to understand, Iran thinks more positively of America than any other country in the Middle East. Our movies, our music, they read Rolling Stone. They're fucking into it. They just have a government of assholes.A Hollywood liberal like this (along with co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov) is bound to win tons of awards for making such a fawning homage to the CIA by rewriting history and exploiting three decades of ignorant propaganda.
* I have since seen Argo and have found nothing about this post that needed changing.
[Click here to return to the original article.]
I have only one additional comment: the role of the Canadian ambassador's Iranian maid, Sahar, who spends months serving the six American diplomats meals and wine, has been pointed to as an example of Affleck's generous myth-busting about Iran. Not all Iranians are raging maniacs, we're meant to be told. See? Some of them are nice, quiet, and subservient.
In a tense scene leading to the diplomats' eventual escape, the maid is confronted at the house where they are hiding by members of the (super sinister) Revolutionary Guards. They ask how long the six guests have been staying there. Frightened but courageous, she lies, "Two days. The people in this house are all friends of Iran."
As presented by the film (and noted by certain observers), this is seen as a great coup, the triumph of morality and generosity, the transcendence of nationalism and revolution for the saving of humanity.
But what does it really say? That the maid didn't spill the beans is fine, whatever. But the larger message - a message conveyed constantly and consistently by Hollywood - is that, in our entertainment media, the goodness of foreigners (namely Middle Eastern Muslims) is judged primarily by how many American lives they save.
As the film ends, we see the maid fleeing her country, the nation of her birth, the country where presumably her family still lives. Where is she going? Iraq: the U.S.-backed nation that will soon launch an aggressive war against Iran that lasts eight years and takes the lives of at least a million human beings. Why is she going there? We don't know.
But really, who cares? She served her purpose. The Americans are safe and sound. And there's champagne on their plane.
November 14, 2012 - A number of other commentators have chimed in on the depiction of Iranians in Argo. Yesterday, The Guardian's Saeed Kamali Dehghan posted his reflection on Argo, in which, after pointing out some minor errors (for instance, Affleck at one point says "salam" at the end of a conversation, even though the word means "hello" - maybe he was thinking of shalom, which makes him an idiot), he writes, "[T]he film takes a black and white view towards Iranians, like many other western films about Iran. It portrays them as ugly, poor, strictly religious, fanatical and ignorant."
Canadian author Jian Ghomeshi also recently wrote in The Globe and Mail of the film's "untimely and deeply troubling portrayal of the Iranian people," and points out that "among all the rave reviews, virtually no one in the mainstream media has called out this unbalanced depiction of an entire ethnic national group, and the broader implications of the portrait."
Argo provides the uninitiated Westerner with a crash course in the nature of the Iranian people as if out of some kind of hawkish fairy tale. Not just the regime, the people. In Argo, somewhere amid the exciting escape of six sympathetic American victims, we are treated to hordes of hysterical, screaming, untrustworthy, irrational, bearded and lethal antagonists. Some of them are pivotal characters that advance the plot. Others are just bystanders in seething crowds. It doesn't seem to matter. The point is, these are the villains. Or more specifically, the Iranians. All of them.
Ghomeshi's whole article is excellent. Read it here.
January 11, 2013 - David Swanson has posted a fascinating piece that addresses the CIA propaganda victory of Argo's success and, more importantly, reveals a forthcoming memoir by Margot Lachlan White, entitled Waking Up in Tehran: Love and Intrigue in Revolutionary Iran, due to be published this spring.
Swanson tells us that White was "an American human rights activist who became an ally of pro-democracy Iranian student groups in 1977, traveled to Iran, supported the revolution, met with the hostage-takers in the embassy, became a public figure, worked with the Kurdish resistance when the new regime attacked the Kurds for being infidels, married an Iranian, and was at home with her husband in Tehran when armed representatives of the government finally banged on the door."
White's account sounds like vital account of history and myth-busting; the anecdotes and details Swanson provides are indeed incredible. No summary would do them justice. Please read Swanson's report in full here.
January 15, 2013 - In an interesting article by the BBC, one of the six American diplomats admits that the true story of Argo has been obscured by Affleck's Hollywoodization of the facts.
Mark Lijek says that the entire "fake movie" premise that the CIA's "cover story was never tested and in some ways proved irrelevant to the escape." For instance, we're told, "There is a sequence in the film where the six go on a location scout in Tehran to create the impression they are movie people. According to Mark, the scene is total fiction."
"We could never have done that," Lijek tells the BBC. "Our story was to be that the Canadian ambassador had strongly advised us not to scout for locations because of instability on the streets...If asked, we were going to say we were leaving Iran to return when it was safer. But no one ever asked!"
Argo's final scenes are superbly tense, as the six make it onto the plane by the skin of their teeth. The CIA had given them false departure documents for which, of course, there were no matching arrival forms.
The big climax is a heart-pounding chase down the runway as gun-toting members of the Revolutionary Guard try to stop them taking off.
"Absolutely none of that happened," says Mark. "It's true there could have been problems with documentation - it was our biggest vulnerability.
"But the Agency had done its homework and knew the Iranian border authorities habitually made no attempt to reconcile documents.
"Fortunately for us, there were very few Revolutionary Guards about. It's why we turned up for a flight at 5.30 in the morning; even they weren't zealous enough to be there that early.
"The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador's residence in Berne. It was that straightforward."In a recent interview, Affleck stated, "It's OK to embellish, it's OK to compress, as long as you don't fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened."
With this in mind, let's recall what Affleck told reporters at Argo's BFI London Film Festival premier back in October: "This movie is about this story that took place, and it's true, and I go to pains to contextualise it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we're taking a cold, hard look at the facts," he said. "I didn't want it to be co-opted by people who had an axe to grind or who wanted to make a certain point, and use the movie for those purposes."
Yeah, Ben, wouldn't that be shame? I mean, imagine if it were used as a love letter to the CIA, that would be awkward, wouldn't it?
Just think if the film's own director, upon winning a Golden Globe award for Best Direction, thanked the "clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving over seas, I want to thank them very much."
Or if one of the film's producers, Clooney chum and former actor Grant Heslov, also took time to praise the torturers, assassins, regime changers, and drone murderers of the CIA after Argo won Best Picture. "I want to thank the folks from the clandestine services who don't always get the credit that they deserve, but they do a lot of great work. And thank you to them as well," Heslov said.