Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar Prints the Legend:
Argo's Upcoming Academy Award and the Failure of Truth

 
One year ago, after his breathtakingly beautiful Iranian drama, "A Separation," won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, writer/director Asghar Farhadi delivered the best acceptance speech of the night.

"[A]t the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians," he said, Iran was finally being honored for "her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics." Farhadi dedicated the Oscar "to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."

Such grace and eloquence will surely not be on display this Sunday, when Ben Affleck, flanked by his co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, takes home the evening's top prize, the Best Picture Oscar, for his critically-acclaimed and heavily decorated paean to the CIA and American innocence, "Argo."

Over the past 12 months, rarely a week - let alone month - went by without new predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuclear weapon and ever-looming threats of an American or Israeli military attack. Come October 2012, into the fray marched "Argo," a decontextualized, ahistorical "true story" of Orientalist proportion, subjecting audiences to two hours of American victimization and bearded barbarians, culminating in popped champagne corks and rippling stars-and-stripes celebrating our heroism and triumph and their frustration and defeat.  Salon's Andrew O'Hehir aptly described the film as "a propaganda fable," explaining as others have that essentially none of its edge-of-your-seat thrills or most memorable moments ever happened.  O'Hehir sums up:
The Americans never resisted the idea of playing a film crew, which is the source of much agitation in the movie. (In fact, the “house guests” chose that cover story themselves, from a group of three options the CIA had prepared.) They were not almost lynched by a mob of crazy Iranians in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, because they never went there. There was no last-minute cancellation, and then un-cancellation, of the group’s tickets by the Carter administration. (The wife of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor had personally gone to the airport and purchased tickets ahead of time, for three different outbound flights.) The group underwent no interrogation at the airport about their imaginary movie, nor were they detained at the gate while a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard telephoned their phony office back in Burbank. There was no last-second chase on the runway of Mehrabad Airport, with wild-eyed, bearded militants with Kalashnikovs trying to shoot out the tires of a Swissair jet.
One of the actual diplomats, Mark Lijek, noted that the CIA's fake movie "cover story was never tested and in some ways proved irrelevant to the escape." The departure of the six Americans from Tehran was actually mundane and uneventful.  "If asked, we were going to say we were leaving Iran to return when it was safer," Lijek recalled, "But no one ever asked!...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."

Furthermore, Jimmy Carter has even acknowledged that "90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA...Ben Affleck's character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process."

Taylor himself recently remarked that "Argo" provides a myopic representation of both Iranians and their revolution, ignoring their "more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn't just a violent demonstration for nothing."

"The amusing side," Taylor said, "is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he's talking about."

O'Hehir perfectly articulates the film's true crime, its deliberate exploitation of "its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological." Not only is it "a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue," but "[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology."

Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck's own comments about the film.  In describing "Argo" to Bill O'Reilly, Affleck boasted, "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."  He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he "absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story."

"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," Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo's BFI London Film Festival premier, "This movie is about this story that took place, and it's true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we're taking a cold, hard look at the facts."

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, "I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that's another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible -- because I didn't want it to be used by either side. I didn't want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them."

For Affleck, these facts apparently don't include understanding why the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and occupied on November 4, 1979.  "There was no rhyme or reason to this action," Affleck has insisted, claiming that the takeover "wasn't about us," that is, the American government (despite the fact that his own film is introduced by a fleeting - though frequently inaccurate1 - review of American complicity in the Shah's dictatorship).

Wrong, Ben.  One reason was the fear of another CIA-engineered coup d'etat like the one perpetrated in 1953 from the very same Embassy. Another reason was the admission of the deposed Shah into the United States for medical treatment and asylum rather than extradition to Iran to face charge and trial for his quarter century of crimes against the Iranian people, bankrolled and supported by the U.S. government.  One doesn't have to agree with the reasons, of course, but they certainly existed.

Just as George H.W. Bush once bellowed after a U.S. Navy warship blew an Iranian passenger airliner out of the sky over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranian civilians, "I'll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don't care what the facts are."  Affleck appears inclined to agree.

If nothing else, "Argo" is an exercise in American exceptionalism - perhaps the most dangerous fiction that permeates our entire society and sense of identity.  It reinvents history in order to mine a tale of triumph from an unmitigated defeat.  The hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days and destroyed an American presidency, was a failure and an embarrassment for Americans.  The United States government and media has spent the last three decades tirelessly exacting revenge on Iran for what happened.

"Argo" recasts revolutionary Iranians as the hapless victims of American cunning and deception.  White Americans are hunted, harried and, ultimately courageous and free.  Iranians are maniacal, menacing and, in the end, infantile and foolish.  The fanatical fundamentalists fail while America wins. USA -1, Iran - 0.  Yet, "Argo" obscures the unfortunate truth that, as those six diplomats were boarding a plane bound for Switzerland on January 28, 1980, their 52 compatriots would have to wait an entire year before making it home, not as the result of a daring rescue attempt, but after a diplomatic agreement was reached.

Reflecting on the most troubled episodes in American history is a time-honored cinematic tradition. There's a reason why the best Vietnam movies are full of pain, anger, anguish and war crimes.  By contrast, "Argo" is American catharsis porn; pure Hollywood hubris.  It is pro-American propaganda devoid of introspection, pathos or humility and meant to assuage our hurt feelings.  In "Argo," no lessons are learned by revisiting the consequences of America's support for the Pahlavi monarchy or its creation and training of SAVAK, the Shah's vicious secret police.

On June 11, 1979, months before the hostage crisis began, the New York Times published an article by writer and historian A.J. Langguth which recounted revelations relayed by a former American intelligence official regarding the CIA's close relationship with SAVAK. The agency had "sent an operative to teach interrogation methods to SAVAK" including "instructions in torture, and the techniques were copied from the Nazis." Langguth wrestled with the news, trying to figure out why this had not been widely reported in the media. He came to the following conclusion:
We – and I mean we as Americans – don’t believe it. We can read the accusations, even examine the evidence and find it irrefutable. But, in our hearts, we cannot believe that Americans have gone abroad to spread the use of torture.

We can believe that public officials with reputations for brilliance can be arrogant, blind or stupid. Anything but evil. And when the cumulative proof becomes overwhelming that our representatives in the C.I.A. or the Agency for International Development police program did in fact teach torture, we excuse ourselves by vilifying the individual men.
Similarly, at a time when the CIA is waging an illegal, immoral, unregulated and always expanding drone execution program, the previous administration's CIA kidnappers and torturers are protected from prosecution by the current administration, and leaked State Department cables reveal orders for U.S. diplomats to spy on United Nations officials, it is surreal that such homage is being paid to that very same organization by the so-called liberals of the Tinsel Town elite.

Upon winning his Best Director Golden Globe last month, Ben Affleck obsequiously praised 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," a statement echoed almost identically by co-producer Grant Heslov when "Argo" later won Best Drama.

This comes as no surprise, considering Affleck had previously described "Argo" as "a tribute" to the "extraordinary, honorable people at the CIA" during an interview on Fox News.

The relationship between Hollywood and the military and intelligence arms of the U.S. government have long been cozy. "When the CIA or the Pentagon says, 'We'll help you, if you play ball with us,' that's favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda," David Robb, author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies" told The Los Angeles Times. "The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin."

Awarding "Argo" the Best Picture Oscar is like Barack Obama winning a Nobel Peace Prize: an undeserved accolade fawningly bestowed upon a dubious recipient based on a transparent fiction; an award for what never was and never would be and a decision so willfully naïve and grotesque it discredits whatever relevance and prestige the proceedings might still have had.*

So this Sunday night, when "Argo" has won that coveted golden statuette, it will be clear that we have yet again been blinded by the heavy dust of politics and our American mantra of hostility and resentment will continue to inform our decisions, dragging us closer and closer to the abyss.

***** ***** *****

* Yes, in this analogy, the equivalent of Henry Kissinger is obviously 2004's dismal "Crash."

*****

FOOTNOTES & UPDATES:

1 The introduction of "Argo" is a dazzlingly sloppy few minutes of caricatured history of Iran, full of Orientalist images of violent ancient Persians (scimitars and all), which gets many basic facts wrong. In truth, it is shocking this intro made it to release as written and recorded.


Here are some of the problems:

1. The voiceover narration says, "In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mossadegh, the secular democrat, Prime Minister. He nationalized British and U.S. petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people."

Mossadegh was elected to the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) in 1944. He did not become Prime Minister until April 1951 and was not "elected by the people of Iran." Rather, he was appointed to the position by the representatives of the Majlis.

Also, the United States did not have petroleum interests in Iran at the time.

2. After briefly describing the 1953 coup, the narrator says Britain and the United States "installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah."

Wow. First, the Shah's name was not Reza Pahlavi. That is his father's (and son's) name. Furthermore, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was not installed as Shah since he had already been Shah of Iran since September 1941, after Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran and forced the abdication of his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi.

During the coup in 1953, the Shah fled to Baghdad, then Rome. After Mossadegh had been forced out, the Shah returned to the Peacock Throne.

This is not difficult information to come by, and yet the screenwriter and director of "Argo" didn't bother looking it up. And guess what? Ben Affleck actually majored in Middle East Studies in college. Unsurprisingly, he didn't graduate.

The rest of the brief intro, while mentioning the torture of SAVAK, omits any mention of its ties to the CIA, glosses over the causes of the revolution, but lingers on the violence that followed. As it ends, the words "Based on a True Story" appear on the screen. The first live action moment we see in "Argo" is of an American flag being burned.

So much for Affleck's insistence that "Argo" is "not a political movie."

Still, as Kevin B. Lee wrote in Slate last month, "This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive—because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves."

He continues,
Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies— still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.
And brilliantly concludes,
Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans. We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.
Another astute observation comes from Sarah Gillespie, writing in The Palestine Chronicle this past November:
In short, ‘Argo’ ultimately reinforces the binary opposition of a civilized West and a savage Iran. We hear a lot of Farsi in the movie, but only when Farsi is spoken by a Western character is the dialogue given subtitles. Farsi spoken by Iranian characters in the film is merely incomprehensible noise. Here the film accurately mirrors our contemporary reality, in which we inflict our discourse on Iranians, but are incapable of listening to theirs.
Nevertheless, in his own comments on the script-writing process during a Hollywood Reporter's Writers Roundtable discussion last November, "Argo" screenwriter Chris Terrio explained that the intention behind the film's brief prologue was to provide context.  "This isn't just a generic image of what we think of as the Arab Street," he said, "Angry people who seem to be burning flags for no reason. You needed to understand the source of the rage."

When Terrio was asked about the film's "liberties with factual truth" and how far he and Affleck thought they "could bend the truth to make a story more effective," Terrio hemmed and hawed about presenting "a very complicated situation" and determining "how much information can we present that the audience [will understand]."

"What's the breaking point for that amount of narrative information?," he said rhetorically, before answering, "Although deviating from factual truth...I don't feel like we compromised in any essential thematic way."

While Terrio did not visit Iran during his writing process, he said he "did as much research as I could." this apparently did not involve learning the proper name of the deposed Shah.  So where did his information come from?  "I spent a bunch of time with Tony Mendez and also bunch of other CIA officers," he said, before revealing what great guys they all are.

Later in the discussion, Terrio even furrowed his brow and pondered a philosophical conundrum.  "I'm not sure of the ethical implications of taking real people's lives and trying to make it a nail-biter," he said.

Clearly.



*****

UPDATE:

February 25, 2013 - On the heels of Oscar Night's unsurprising coda (made all the more bizarre by the inclusion of Michelle Obama, surrounded by awkward-looking military personnel, presenting the Best Picture to "Argo" from the White House, providing a deeply disturbing governmental imprimatur to the entire proceedings), The Los Angeles Times published a report Monday morning about how "Argo" is being perceived in Iran by Iranians themselves.

The conclusion is clear from the headline: 'Argo's' Oscar gets a thumbs-down in Iran. Journalists Ramin Mostaghim and Patrick J. McDonnell quote several Iranians who have seen the movie, bootlegs of which are widely available, all of whom clearly have a better grasp on, not only the politics, but also the art (or lack thereof) of cinema itself. "The perception that the film portrayed Iranians uniformly as bearded, violent fanatics rankled many who recall that Iran's 1979 revolution had both secular and religious roots -- and ousted a dictatorial monarch, the shah of Iran, reviled as a corrupt and brutal puppet of Washington," Mostaghim and McDonnel explain. Here's what we hear from Iranians themselves:
"I am secular, atheist and not pro-regime but I think the film 'Argo' has distorted history and insulted Iranians," said Hossain, a cafe owner worried about business because of customers' lack of cash in a sanctions-battered economy. "For me, it wasn't even a good thriller." 
"I did not enjoy seeing my fellow countrymen and women insulted," said Farzaneh Haji, an educated homemaker and fan of romantic movies who was 18 at the time of the revolution. "The men then were not all bearded and fanatical. To be anti-American was a fashionable idea among young people across the board. Even non-bearded and U.S.-educated men and women were against American imperialism." 
"As an action film or thriller, the film was good, but it was not believable, especially the way the six Americans escaped from the airport," said Farshid Farivar, 49, a Hollywood devotee, as he stretched his legs in an office where he does promotional work. "At any rate, it was an average film and did not deserve an Oscar."
The piece ends with the reporters speaking with Abbas Abdi, one of the revolutionary students who planned the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979 and who spent some time in prison a decade ago for criticisms of the Iranian government:
In a brief telephone interview on Monday, Abdi said the Oscars had plummeted to the feeble level of Iran's own Fajr Film Festival, not exactly one of the luminaries on the international movie awards circuit.

"The Oscars are now vulgar and have standards as low as our own film festival," he said. "The Oscars deserve 'Argo' and 'Argo' deserves the Oscars."
An Associated Press report also quotes some Iranians about their views on the film.  Mohammad Amin Sharifi, a self-described cinephile in Tehran, said, "In my opinion, it's a nice movie from technical aspects and it was on the scale of Hollywood movies, but I don't think it was worth a nomination for Oscar and other awards."

USA Today also has an Oscar follow-up entitled, "Tourists see a different Iran reality than 'Argo' image," which details the warmth, generosity and hospitality of Iranians experienced by travelers when visiting Iran.

Robert Parry over at Consortiumnews has posted an excellent article on "Argo" in which he writes that the film has "largely draw[n] its narrative in black and white, with strong propaganda overtones, feeding into the current hostility between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program."

Further, Parry notes, "Despite a brief documentary-style opening referencing the 1953 coup and the dictatorial rule of the Shah of Iran until 1979, Argo quickly descended into a formulaic tale of sympathetic CIA officers trying to outwit nasty Iranian revolutionaries, complete with a totally made-up thriller escape at the end."

He concludes, "Argo confirms to many average Americans the unreasonableness of Iranians, who are portrayed as both evil and inept. If negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program collapse, this propaganda image of the Iranians could help tilt the balance of U.S. public opinion toward war."

*****

UPDATE II:

February 26, 2013 - Canada's leading newspaper the Globe and Mail has published an interview with former Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, the man who was primarily responsible for the hiding and rescue of the six American diplomats whose story is told in "Argo."

Taylor, while accepting "Hollywood’s penchant for poetic licence," still takes the time to set the record straight.

On the fake Hollywood film concoction that is essentially the entire point of "Argo" and lends the movie its "amazing story" status, Taylor explains that the CIA actually complicated matters by getting involved. He explains:
While the CIA did finally settle on the Hollywood cover idea, Taylor intended for the six Americans to leave on their own as part of a wave of Canadians departing in the normal course of international travel. “I was cutting back the staff,” he recalls. “[The Americans] would just be Canadians going through, some on business, some going back after temporarily serving at the embassy.” Sometime before the date of departure, the CIA decided it wanted to send in two agents to travel with the escapees. “Tony and one other officer came in, then went out. I think they were at the airport and monitored their [departure]. Because there was no interrogation at the airport.”
Regarding the forged documentation attributed to CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck's character) in the film, Taylor says:
“The documentation was totally prepared in Ottawa.” That included passports, business cards, credit cards and other ephemera (receipts from restaurants in Toronto, Montreal etc.) that would help establish the legitimacy of the six Americans as a Canadian film crew. After one Farsi-speaking member of Taylor’s staff discovered an error in the documents, more passports were issued by Ottawa and couriered via diplomatic pouch to Tehran.
Chris Terrio's Oscar-winning script lays the tension on thick towards the end of "Argo" when it is revealed that the Canadian Embassy is going to be shut down, thereby leaving the American diplomats with nowhere to hide, thus amplifying the immediacy and urgency of the impending escape. But Taylor throws a bucket a freezing water on this particular twist of the tale, declaring, "It's inconceivable that Canada would have closed the embassy while U.S. diplomats were still there. It wouldn't even have occurred to us."

After the diplomats left Iran, the embassy was indeed closed down. Even after reopening in 1988, Canada and Iran still didn't exchange ambassadors for another eight years. The embassy was again shuttered, and Iranian diplomats were expelled from their own mission in Ottawa, in September 2012 at the behest of neoconservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In response, James George, who preceded Ken Taylor as Canadian ambassador to Iran, called the move "stupid." Other former ambassadors expressed concern and condemnation. Taylor himself said on Canadian television shortly after the announcement, "I really can't see the rationale of this move. It's a very bold stroke to sever diplomatic relations and close the embassy within five days."

In a USA Today article published the day before the Academy Awards, Ken Taylor reiterated his frustration with the film. The report also quotes Jimmy Carter, speaking at Canada's Queen's University in November, saying he was "taken aback by [the film's] distortion of what happened because almost everything that was heroic, or courageous or innovative was done by Canada and not the United States."

Incidentally, here is news report from CBC which followed the events depicted in "Argo":


(h/t Kevin Russell)

*****  

UPDATE III: February 26, 2013 - It's not just the Canadians who are peeved over "Argo." Today, the London-based Daily Mail wrote that the Best Picture is "yet another piece of Hollywood's Brit-bashing junk history that casts the British in a poor light."

 By way of explanation, Daily Mail's Guy Walters points out that "according to the Affleck version of the rescue mission, the six embassy staff were refused refuge by British diplomats. ‘Brits turned them away,’ says a senior CIA character in the film." He continues:
The truth, however, could not be more different. The British did give their American colleagues sanctuary. Far from being cowards, the Brits were heroes. Many of the British diplomats then stationed in Iran are still alive — and they’re fuming. ‘When I first heard about this film, I was really quite annoyed,’ says Sir John Graham, 86, who was in Tehran at the time of the crisis. Sir John is understandably concerned that Argo will become accepted as the definitive history of what happened.
Walters goes on the tell the tale of how the American diplomats (all six were not yet together at the time), upon leaving the U.S. Embassy, found the British mission surrounded by its own crowd of protesters. The Americans actually all stayed in their own apartments that night and were supposed to be picked up by British officials the next day. The Brits got lost on their way to the rendezvous point, but eventually met up with the Americans, taking them to a British residential compound that was still secure, "offered them a house of their own, fed them a warm meal, [and] even prepared cocktails." They spent the night there. After that, the American diplomats stayed in various residences in Tehran, often times separately, for a few days before eventually seeking long-term refuge with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor.

The Daily Mail article adds, "Many of the British embassy staff from that time have seen Argo. ‘It does not bear all that much relation to the facts,’ observes Sir David Miers drily. 'It is not a true story.' Ben Affleck has acknowledged the film casts Britain in a bad light. ‘But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone,’ he said." 'Well, except the Iranians', he totally forgot to add.

*****

UPDATE IV:

March 2, 2013 - A very condemnatory and, in many ways, challenging review of "Argo," posted on Iranian.com, makes the following observation about the film's employment of dehumanizing imagery which, up until now, I've seen nowhere else.
Affleck’s lead character imagines a film production as pretext for his mission while watching a TV episode of Planet of the Apes. Really? Apes? Because those hirsute, irrational, enraged Persians are essentially mutinous primates, breaking out of their assigned cages and capturing their legitimately superior Caucasoid human handlers, right?!? Affleck would claim that the make-up artist John Chambers, who designed Mendez’ Hollywood cover, also worked on Planet of the Apes, hence that TV reference. Yet watch that scene again – one of armed, dark-hued, stern, uniformed apes guarding and walking Americans along a mountain ledge into captivity – and you’ll sense how the film subtly programs audiences to subconsciously view “the enemy”.
[Quick nerd note: In "Argo," Affleck's character is actually watching a scene from the 1973 movie, "The Battle for the Planet of the Apes," not the short-lived 1974 TV series.]

*****  

UPDATE V: March 5, 2013 - Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the Islamic Republic of Iran's first president, has written a fascinating article for the Christian Science Monitor about "Argo" and its misrepresentation of history, namely the impression given by the film that the Iranian government has wholly supportive of the Embassy takeover and subsequent hostage-taking.

"Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s entire administration was against the occupation," Bani-Sadr explains, continuing, "Indeed, in the early days there was no talk of hostage-taking. The occupation was initially regarded as a short-term protest against the shah’s admittance to the United States, as the memory of the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh was still fresh in public memory. But as the event began to play a more important role in domestic Iranian and American foreign politics, the protest was transformed into a hostage-taking that lasted for 444 days and had catastrophic consequences for Iran, the US, and international politics."

Despite vociferously opposing the continued occupation, Bani-Sadr was voted into office by an huge margin. In fact, "96 percent of votes in that election were given to candidates who were against it," he writes. "Hence, the movie misrepresents the Iranian government’s stand in regard to hostage-taking. It also completely misrepresents Iranians by portraying us as irrational people consumed by aggressive emotion, in contrast to the 'Western' Americans, who were, as Edward Said once wrote, constructed as 'rational, peaceful, liberal, logical' ... etc.." Bani-Sadr explains that he has "a deeper concern about the way the film legitimizes clandestine CIA operations."

"[B]y falsifying, misrepresenting, and taking critical facts out of context, it delivers a pro-CIA message at the cost of both the Iranian people and Iranian history. It does not help people understand that rather than being emblematic of the 1979 revolution, the hostage-taking enabled the forces of dictatorship we see today to overpower democratic struggles against the occupation of the US Embassy and all forms of violence in society."

*****  

UPDATE VI:

 March 21, 2013 - Months after its theatrical release last autumn and its award-winning run this past winter, "Argo" is still pissing people off. Who now? New Zealand. Early on in the film, the audience is told how the six American diplomats found refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house after leaving the Embassy: "The six of them went out a back exit. Brits turned them away. Kiwis turned them away. Canadians took them in," explains Bryan Cranston's character Jack O'Donnell tells Affleck's Mendez. This off-hand reference to New Zealand touched a nerve. The Associated Press reports today that the New Zealand "Parliament has expressed its dismay, passing a motion stating that Affleck, who also directed the film, 'saw fit to mislead the world about what actually happened.'" The article continues:
In fact, a U.S. State Department document dated Feb. 6, 1980, says "four Embassies — Canadians, British, Swedish and New Zealand — were involved in their protection and escape." The document was posted online last fall by the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.
And published interviews indicate diplomats from Britain and New Zealand did help by briefly sheltering the Americans, visiting them and bringing them food, even driving them to the airport when they left. Yet those interviews also indicate that both countries considered it too risky to shelter the Americans for long. That left the Canadians shouldering the biggest risk by taking them in. Lawmaker Winston Peters, who brought last week's uncontested motion before Parliament, said New Zealanders are unfairly portrayed as "a bunch of cowards," an impression that would be given to millions who watch the movie.
"It's a diabolical misrepresentation of the acts of courage and bravery, done at significant risk to themselves, by New Zealand diplomats," he said.
*****

36 comments:

Amir said...

Speaking of obscuring, the author "forgets" to mention the fact that the embassy takeover and hostage taking was part and parcel of the radical revolutionaries' strategy of sidelining the Mehdi Bazargan-led Provisional Government (who resigned soon after the incident). The author also "forgets" to mention that the crimes of the Shah's regime have been exponentially multiplied by the current Islamist regime. Indeed, the number of executions in its very first year were approximately double that of the entire period from 1941-1979! And that doesn't even account for the tens of thousands executed by the IRI since then -- a period of savage premeditated murder by the state without equal in recent Iranian history. So much for obscuring!

LJansen said...

Regarding the charges of Amir about deaths during the Shah's and the current regime, is there some documentation?

I am struck by the shallowness of Ben Affleck's historical references. He was supposedly a devoted fan of Howard Zinn. Now I know Zinn had a weakness for Democratic politicians. Is this is what is motivating Affleck's excuse for Obama to bomb bomb bomb Iran?

Amir said...

Dear L. Jansen,

After the Revolution, Paul Balta of the French newspaper "Le Monde" estimated the number of executions under the Shah's regime at approximately 400. Emad Baghi,a former researcher at the Islamic Republic's own "Martyrs Foundation" systematically estimated the number killed in the decades before the current regime came to power (mostly in demonstrations and clashes) at about 3,000:

http://www.emadbaghi.com/en/archives/000592.php

And please bear in mind that the bloodiest single incident of the Islamic Revolution was the burning to death of approximately 400 men and women in the Cinema Rex, which was an act carried out by the Islamic revolutionaries themselves. As far as the crimes of the current Islamist regime, I'll quote the following passage from Ervand Abrahamian's "Tortured Confessions":

"Between June and November 1981, the Revolutionary Tribunals executed 2,665 political prisoners—seven times the number of royalists killed in the previous sixteen months. The slain included 2,200 Mojaheds and 400 leftists—mostly from Marxist groups that had opposed the Mojahedin uprising. The government boasted it had arrested 90 percent of the Mojahedin and utterly uprooted two important Marxist groups—Peykar and the Minority Fedayi.[14]
The death toll continued to climb, reaching 5,000 by August 1983 and 12,500 by June 1985. According to a martyrs' list compiled by the Mojahedin, between June 1981 and June 1985, 12,028 lost their lives—74 percent through executions, 22 percent in armed confrontations, and 4 percent under torture."

And this includes the thousands executed in the year 1988, the over 200 Bahais killed for refusing to renounce their religion, the hundreds of prostitutes, drug addicts, adulterers, gays, and other "deviants", and the hundreds of common criminals executed each and every year by the Islamist tyranny (including those guilty of non-capital offenses such as drug trafficking). Not to mention the thousands flogged for various other offenses (including alcohol consumption, etc).

Amir said...

I meant to write: "And this does NOT even include the thousands executed in the year 1988."

If one were to add the victims of the IRI's massacre of thousands more of its political opponents in 1988, it would push the number of executions carried out by the Islamist tyranny higher yet.

Hassan said...

Documentation? No, sorry, the mullahs did not keep track of the number of civilians they killed in the process. However, this article is blatantly inaccurate. Khomeini did kill loads more than the Shah even dared. Trust me, the Shah was not near perfect, bu the Iranian and opposition blood on the hands of the IRI is much greater than that of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Just look at 2009, all the protesters the Basijis killed, on top of that a new revolutionary government killed thousands, for what? Did they fail to realize that the revolutionaries had multiple goals and not one ideology? Most at the time wanted a free Iran, and believed in the promises an Islamic Republic gave them. However, there were groups (communists, leftists, monarchists, reformists) that wanted different outcomes for Iran. Anyone that disagreed at the time was met with death.

Was the film accurate? Yes and no- Iran was like that at the time, in turmoil, a lot of Iranians were angry with the Shah but failed to realize what they had was 10x better than what they were about to receive. Many wanted political freedom, which they did not get. Some, like the maid, just sat on the sidelines and watched it unfold. However, it was mainly a Canadian operation and not an American one like the film portrays.

RF said...

This is the best deconstruction of the evils of Argo I have seen. I'm so glad I found your blog. Keep writing.

Edwin Moore said...

Great piece Nima. The film also tells lies about the British, though painting us in as minor villains is so unremarkable it's practically a given in Hollywood. See

http://www.theweek.co.uk/film/oscars-2013/51635/anti-british-lie-heart-oscar-favourite-argo

Figment Zenguitar said...

Thanks for this. I would just add, in regard to the body count of the Shah's regime vs. the Islamic Revolutionary regime: If the democratically elected Mossadegh had been allowed to remain in power, the mullahs would not have been able to use his overthrow as a basis for amassing dissent in their quarter. The CIA will acknowledge this "blowback." The biggest immediate consequence of allowing democracy to proceed in Iran would have been for BP (Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. at the time) to lose a big chunk of their haul out of the Persian oil fields. "Argo" contributes to the "innocent empire" narrative which, of course, is a lie.

dionysos said...

Thank you very much for this first rate analysis of "Argo." Ben Affleck is a cultural hazard trying repeatedly to redeem his plastic career as a flag-waving shit-for-brains.

dionysos said...

Would just like to add how much I admire your website as I get to know it. Full of perception, excellent reading and empowerment. Keep it going, friend! Peace.....Jack Dempsey (Ancientlights.org)

Amir said...

Mosaddeq was not "democratically elected". Iran was not in 1953 nor has it ever been a "democracy". Mosaddeq was put forth by the Majles as Prime Minister, and he was appointed by the Shah. The Majles then gave Mosaddeq a vote of confidence with the minimum possible quorom. In Iran's political system at the time, appointing and dismissing Prime Ministers was considered "royal prerogative" (not that I agree with that). That was true before Mosaddeq and after Mosaddeq. Mosaddeq subsequently dissolved the very same Majles that had nominated him as Prime Minister and held a sham of a referendum to justify his power grab -- a referendum in which he received over 99% of the votes! So much for Mosaddeq the "democrat"!

Moreover, his ouster as Prime Minister was supported by key members of the clergy -- most importantly Ayatollah Kashani (whom the Islamist regime considers the real "hero" of that period) and Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi.

Ghulam said...

So all the haters excuse the lies, propaganda, cultural imperialism and horror of the American war machine .. Because the Shah was a cuddly Teddy bear and the Ayatollah a conniving snake. Way to deal with the issue.

Amir said...

Ghulam joon,

Way to set up a Straw Man! Salavat befres!

PlanB247 said...

Amir and Hassan sound like the only Persian-American I know... complete and utter tools. Just because the Islamist revolution was bad, bad, bad, that doens't change the facts of what led up to it (IE, mainly US meddling in Iranian affairs). The US NEVER wanted democracy in Iran because then they couldn't control the country. Well, the US got what they wanted, a permanent enemy, but the Iranian people got screwed by their own government and the meddling of the US. And now they have to deal with a fundamentalist government because of it.

PlanB247 said...

Amir and Hassan are apologists for the American destruction of Iran, much like other Persian-Americans I have known (sickeningly named after Reza too)... The fact that Islamist rule is bad, does not remove the culpability from the US. In fact, it makes it even worse because the US meddling is what actually led to the fundamentalists taking over. As the US and the CIA have done in many countries from Chile to Iraq to Nicaragua to Afghanistan.

USAn said...

Ljansen wrote:

"Now I know Zinn had a weakness for Democratic politicians..."

If I may correct this statement, as a leftist, Zinn had no "weakness for democratic politcians." He regarded the two main parties as tweedledum and twedledee.

mikeinportc said...

Judging by the comments made when this rolled out, and since, I suspected there'd be some element of the current anti-Iranian propaganda projected onto 1979. I wasn't willing to pay ( & support it financially) to find out. Thank you for doing so.

What happened after the time depicted in the film ,is , in part, the result of what went before. Action - reaction. Also rather irrelevant to the points made in this post . That is, unless you are positing that the brutality that followed justifies distorting the events and people depicted. Whatever evils that have been committed from '79 to the present don't justify or excuse those perpetrated in the preceding era, or the American involvement in it.

mikeinportc said...

Judging by the comments made when this rolled out, and since, I suspected there'd be some element of the current anti-Iranian propaganda projected onto 1979. I wasn't willing to pay ( & support it financially) to find out. Thank you for doing so.

What happened after the time depicted in the film ,is , in part, the result of what went before. Action - reaction. Also rather irrelevant to the points made in this post . That is, unless you are positing that the brutality that followed justifies distorting the events and people depicted. Whatever evils that have been committed from '79 to the present don't justify or excuse those perpetrated in the preceding era, or the American involvement in it.

USAn said...

Thank-you, Mr. Shirazi, for an excellent deconstruction of this film.

Back in those days, I closely followed the hosage crisis and the later news of the Canadian embassy incident. Why must Hollywood take well-documented historical events and distort them supposedly to to make the events more "entertaining"? We all know the answer to this rhetorical question. Becasue if it were purely about entertainment value, then what could be more a more compelling material for a movie drama than the quite credible evidence of collusion of the Reagan campaign with the Iran regime to retain the hostages through the election year in order to assure Carter's defeat? A sequel could then cover the secret use of proceeds from the promised arms sales to Khomeni's regime to arm the Contra terrorists fighting the two-time democratically elected Sandisista Party in Nicaragua.

Sure, the election-year-hostage quid-pro-quo aspect of this plot has never been solidly proven, but assuming it did happen would stlll be less of a historical distortion than what you describe in your article.

Anonymous said...

I didn't believe the visit to the bazar, the phone call to the studio 6, or the chase down the runway, so the movie didn't really bother me.

I think the idea was to create something like 'All the presidents men'. But, if I remember right, that film stayed closer to the facts.

I liked it because it reminded me of a time in the US when we could breathe a little easier - and that was probably part of the idea too. But we've clearly crossed some kind of weird line here when the wife of a man who orders extrajudicial killings presents an award to a self congratulatory film about the agency that carries them out .. positively surreal.

Amir said...

What, if any, responsibility do Iranians have for the state of affairs in their country both past and present? As an Iranian, I find the attempt to dodge responsibility for where Iran has been and where it is now onto the Devil Incarnate (aka the Great Satan) to represent a failing that some, thankfully not all, Iranians do not want to face. Better to keep blaming the Great Satan.

iskander said...

The irony is that a great thriller could have been made about the Hostage crisis, Gary Sick, Iranian specialist for Pres Carter, wrote a book called "October Surprise" that shows it is quite likely the Reagan administration conspired to prevent the hostages release until after the election. This film would have been deeply disturbing, and in fact, there was a point when it was considered as a potential movie. Instead we get this P-O-S. Yeay! Zero Dark Thirty was shamed! Lets make the other CIA Propaganda film the number 1 movie of the year - even Lincoln had dark references to the abuse of the executive as justifiable - a justification of Bush and Obama lawlessness. The injustice burns doesn't it?

iskander said...

The irony is that a great thriller could have been made about the Hostage crisis, Gary Sick, Iranian specialist for Pres Carter, wrote a book called "October Surprise" that shows it is quite likely the Reagan administration conspired to prevent the hostages release until after the election. This film would have been deeply disturbing, and in fact, there was a point when it was considered as a potential movie. Instead we get this P-O-S. Yeay! Zero Dark Thirty was shamed! Lets make the other CIA Propaganda film the number 1 movie of the year - even Lincoln had dark references to the abuse of the executive as justifiable - a justification of Bush and Obama lawlessness. The injustice burns doesn't it?

Beaverbrook said...

Anyone entrusted with a loosely historical, pseudo-documentary remake of political history who chased Jennifer Lopez to Winnipeg (while making a dance movie with Richard Gere) just for a quick fling, ought NOT to be taken seriously.

Remember folks, this is Hollywood, actors, screenplay writers and people making money out of story-telling, not making history.

Editorial Staff said...

newsflash: Argo NOT documentary.

understanding our history is important.
expecting this understanding to come from movies is plain stupid.

Larry Nocella said...

Good article. I'm old enough to remember when the crisis was going on from the USA side. Though I was just a wee lad, I remember the "cultural" things, like bumper stickers with Mickey Mouse giving the finger next to "HEY IRAN" and a daily count of the days the hostages were held in the local paper.

I loved Argo as a thriller. I don't fully agree that Iran was painted as uniformly bad as this article implies, but I see your point. On one hand, I'm tempted to say Argo is just a movie that never made a pretense of being a documentary. But on the other hand, it does lean on being factual-ish to sell its excitement.

I suspect the ultimate problem is this: Iran is a mystery to us Americans. It's news to many of us that Iranians are Persian and not Arabs. Or are they both? Are "Persians" or "Arabs" ethnic group or "race"? I mean no offense here, I'm just saying this complex nation is shrouded in basic questions before we even get to complex ones.

Why can't Iran have a nuke? Because their leader talks tough? But many other leaders do that. And what about the green revolution of a few years ago? Iran was in an uproar, it looked like the 60s in America. Then some students were shot and it calmed down. At least that's the view from here in the USA. But I think, those people are still there, those people who wanted change.

I remember hearing an interview with the hostage takers in Iran. They said they were surprised that the American hippie movement, fresh from the 60s did not express support. Again I say, for whatever reason, to us Americans, Iran is a mystery.

It's taking effort to learn more. This blog is one way through. I'll be following. All the best to all peoples.

Larry Nocella

Chris Tunnock said...

"because I didn't want it to be used by either side. I didn't want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them."

there. Affleck attempts to deflect and obfuscate with the hide in plain site defense.

that IS what BA did. And the reverse engineering of this from script to funding, would have been years in the can.

And does BA have his eyes on Capitol Hill? Damn right. His agent, the most powerful man in Hollywood Ari Emanuel, brother of Rahm, and his father is Benjamin Emanuel who was a member of the Irgun and told the Jerusalem Post “Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel,” he was quoted as saying. “Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.”

So BA has his eyes on Reagan, after Rahm leaves Chicago and takes the nomination of HRC, BA will be looking to DC too. And Rahm is a big fundraiser for the Dems, and will rival the Clintons for their control of donors.

city said...

thanks for share..

David Kaeln said...

Taylor himself recently remarked that "Argo" provides a myopic representation of both Iranians and their revolution, ignoring their "more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn’t just a violent demonstration for nothing."

They were looking for justice and hope. How? By kidnapping, murdering, religious despotism, beatings, violence of every sort?

How does one pursue justice with injustice?

Unknown said...

Reza Bareheni in his "Crowned Cannibals" said it best:

"It is no wonder that the whole of contemporary Iranian fiction, poetry, and criticism revolves around one central theme: repression."

This is because Islam has provided the Persian with an excuse to wield absolute patriarchal power. It is the economic, cultural, and political basis of Iranian society from Darius to Ahmedinejad.

Baraheni was a Marxist, so he was never talking about opening the Iranian mind to a free and unfettered discussion of ideas, but his analysis of the failure of succeeding Persian and Iranian regimes is trenchant.

popsiq said...

Why not tell the story(ies) of those Iranians waiting at the embassy for exit documents. They left the embassy with the future 'film crew' and they had even less places to go.

Or tell the stories of the other 140 hostages who would spend the next year being 'subjected to terror'.

By the way, no commentary on the 'torture scenes' in Argo as opposed to the 'stark reality' of 'waterboarding' in Zero D30?

Eilif Verney-Elliott said...

Excellent piece of analysis!

Morgan said...

I really appreciated this very in depth analysis. When I attempted to watch this movie I shut it off before the six even left the Embassy. I found it insulting and I am by no means an expert. I tried to explain this to people I know and the ignorance is amazing. No one had any idea why I was put off by the movie. I only ended up watching the movie after it won the Oscar. I thought it was pure crap. And that was before I knew just how many factual errors there are. I initially just found it to be incredibly blind sighted.

Thank you very much Nima.

gregory said...

award presented by president's wife!? crikey...

Roland Joseph said...

As I read the in depth analysis in this piece, and agree with most of the points made, I get the sense that in some way something is still missing, something extremely nuanced that even myself may not be able to capture in words, which provides Affleck and Hollywood the opportunity afforded to them which is the simple fact that this narrative was created by the Iranians, in spite of all the great details missed. The events get reduced to iconoclastic gestures that have permanently resided in the american collective conscious- It was the Iranians who stormed the embassy, the Iranians who held americans captive for 444 days, and Argo simply builds upon that narrative with this obscure sub plot of 6 americans caught in a fissure of history. This was a Hollywood film, not an HBO documentary. The fact of the matter is that as americans deep down inside we do know the compromise of our existence and how much we have sold-out in history. Ours is a short yet complicated history and in many ways we are racing against time trying to catch up and keep up with the great histories of other civilizations. At the end of the day, Ben is simply projecting the truth of who we are in the context of the world...it is Ben Affleck after all.

Anonymous said...

Hello from Ireland. I watched this movie a while back,and gave it an 8 on imdb, so obviously I liked it. I found the article about the factual innacurracies of the movie very interesting, but it's not going to make me change my rating.
As for americans taking credit for heroic acts not entirely of their doing, i have two words to say "objective Burma"