Spoiler Alert: (I point to the obvious ending of the movie; it’s a spoiler if you know nothing about the events of Iran 1980).
Update: See below.
It is very alienating to be in this country right now if you refuse to accept the premise that the lives of Americans have more worth than those of foreign nationals. By right now, I mean three weeks before the national elections to determine who will oversee the American Empire for the next four years. Last night, based on a brief description on a commercial movie site, I tweeted outrage about the timing of a new movie, Argo, produced by Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and others. The description mentioned the true-story rescue of 6 American Embassy staff from the Canadian Ambassador’s residence in 1980 during a tense moment in Iran’s history, and one of several especially tense moments in the history of Iran’s relationship with the United States. The movie is staffed by great lights, including Adam Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler and starring Ben Affleck as the CIA operative who rescues the Americans.
It is hard not to be seduced by the great production and staff—what’s not to love about Affleck? He’s hot, smart, with good politics generally—and by the comic plot of the rescue, which requires the Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman, to assist Antonio Mendez, the CIA operative, figure out a plan to help the 6 American Embassy staffers leave Iran. Initially, I felt sheepish about my outraged tweet, and worried about my skeptical preconceptions about the timing and tone of the movie.
My skepticism had been enhanced by the prominent production presence of George Clooney, whose assertive embrace of the Democrats during several key egregious moments in the last four years—notably after the extra-legal assassination of Osama Bin Ladin—remains prominent in my mind. There are funny, absurd, and delightful moments in this film, whose title is a play on a joke and catchphrase used by Ben Affleck’s, Adam Arkin’s and John Goodman’s characters: “Argo Fuckyourself.” But I am not offering a film review.
While the details of the film may not be completely accurate in trivial ways, it is technically quite “accurate” in its rendering of the logic of the moments leading to the rescue by the CIA, including the brief moment when the mission was temporarily aborted. It is a refined film, which makes it difficult to do anything other than sympathize with the Americans and worship Tony Mendez, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, who refused to leave his charges even after the clandestine mission was shut down. In fact, aside from a dramatic story, the not-so-subtle subplot of the movie appears to be the celebration of the CIA as a competent organization. More, it declares that the CIA is vital to the “cooperation” between great nations. Indeed, there is a slogan to this effect that springs onto the screen against the backdrop of heart-swelling patriotic music. As alarming, it urges us to trust the CIA with lives and livelihoods of the nation, its citizens, and the world more generally.
Even more telling is what is not said but what is shown: The movie “properly” offers a brief—very brief–introduction in narrating the history of Iran from the 1950’s until the 1980’s. The (unplanned but certainly familiar) ingenuity of this film is its easy resonance with Dem VP Biden’s assumptions, articulated two nights ago in his debate against Paul Ryan: the easy and urgent priority of the value of 6 American lives—worth so much more than the other lives (that the US) sacrificed under the installation of the Shah. In fact, those 6 American lives justified a planned top-secret mission into the confusion of post-revolutionary Iran.
The unrest was a direct consequence of what was once thought to be the US Empire’s greatest moments (the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister), but was soon recognized as one of the biggest mistakes of the American Empire under whose auspices the CIA precipitated a chaotic revolutionary moment.
Indeed, the authenticity of the original footage, the film’s zeal to “stick to the facts,” makes it much easier to inhale the spectacle of crazy imams, zealous armies and well-educated (and well-armed) Revolutionary Guards rushing here there and everywhere to shoot on sight those whom they suspect of treason to the Islamic Republic. There’s no disputing that these things happened. There is no dispute that the American 6 were “innocent” of wrongdoing, and make for sympathetic victims. They were “ordinary Americans,” which heightens the heroism of the CIA—going in under such dangerous circumstances to rescue them. The heightened contrast between the worthy Americans and the unvalued brown folks is seen in the fate of Sahar, the housekeeper of the Canadian Ambassador. She is seen suspiciously and then sympathetically as her loyalty to her boss and his guests is revealed. But even as we understand that her life is at severe risk—and that her rescue will not be by the CIA but left in her own hands, the attention is fleeting.
The story of this film just happens to resonate with the story that we have been hearing for months. It is the story that justifies the sanctions upon Iran (with increasingly frequent references to the threat of nuclear war in the hands of the same ‘crazy’ imams and their minion Mahmoud Ahmedinejad). It is the story that drives Bibi to throw his hands up in frustration as POTUS—thus far—refuses to invade Iran. It is the story that confirms the political and moral weight of American Empire. And as importantly, it is the story that reaffirms the decisions made by the CIA on behalf of American Empire. It validates the CIA’s existence, it valorizes its supposed competence. It is the fantasy of a CIA that has probably never existed—and certainly not now—as we recall the incident of the CIA agent who shot two Pakistanis last year, whose story was covered up by an embarrassed US—at least for a few days.
It is hard not to recall the events in Benghazi last month as U.S. State Department rushed to lie about the circumstances of the deaths of US Embassy Staff and Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. Remember the initial narrative we received from the State Department: mobs of Muslims were furious at the satire and insults of the (much cruder anti-Muslim) movie made by Sam Bacile, and invaded the US embassy to kill 5 staff, including Stevens. The ensuing “correction” that the mobs in Benghazi were responding TO the killing of Stevens and other Embassy staff—barely registers.
Indeed, the recent complicity of the media and State Department in depicting Libyans as hordes of teeming zealots and savages who couldn’t tolerate being badmouthed in a crappy movie comes to mind. It resembles scenes in Argo that depict hordes of Iranian men who lose their tempers as one of the American six takes a photograph for the “film” that they are supposedly shooting.
Even as it engages in these reinscriptions of “crazy” Muslims and seething Iranians, Argo seduces, assures, and comforts. It balances its savage-ization of Iranians with alternate scenes that intimate that ordinary Iranians are forced to submit to the fundamentalist aims of its unfortunate religiously zealous dictators. The suspense of waiting to see whether the Americans will be able to escape Iran before the Revolutionary Guard catches on to them, is heightened by the frequent splicings of masses of darker-skinned folks chanting and shouting; menacing dark and bearded men in uniforms aiming rifles at other Iranians; and a hijabi member of the Revolutionary Guard reading out statements condemning the United States for its imperial behavior.
Technically, there are no single facts or details that are grievously “inaccurate” in the portrayal of this event. The flaw lies in the way the facts are massaged and assembled to reflect a patronizing Orientalism, and of course, Islamophobia (I have taken issue with this term from time to time, but I believe it is accurate here). Towards the movie’s end, as the Americans barely managed to catch the SwissAir jet that would whisk them away, the scene is interspliced with laughing, infantilized images of the Revolutionary guards who have been gifted with animated scenes from the faux movie that the “Canadian filmmakers” are supposedly there to research.
They, along with the teeming brown hordes, are contrasted with an unabashed, if warm and moving, embrace of the priority of (white) American lives—protected and facilitated by the help of the US’ neighbors to the north. In this movie, we hear Joe Biden’s contemptuous insistence to Paul Ryan that Afghans need to step up, that American lives are more valuable. We hear Madeleine Albright’s insistence that the deaths of so many Iraqi children (under Clinton-era sanctions) were “worth it.” We hear the reinscription that American lives are always worth more, are worth clandestine CIA operations. And of course, it enables the justification and valorization of the CIA less than 3 weeks before the US national elections: it reiterates what is already an uncontroversial point for Republicans and Democrats.
We hear the media’s uncritical acceptance of these positions by the US government. That is part of what renders this film so problematic: there is no critical assessment of the assumptions of the journalists and other raconteurs who covered these events thirty years ago—as there is no such assessment by most journalists in the MSM today. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out in his assessment of Martha Raddatz and faux objectivity, journalists can better inform their audience when they come to terms with their own biases. I would say: Moviemakers, too.
The others in the theatre where I saw the film may have been warmed by this feel-good story of American exceptionalism and superiority. I was chilled.
Update: Sarah Shourd, an American who along with two friends, was captured in July 2009 on the Iran-Iraq border, offers an overlapping assessment of Argo. Thanks to @standardherald for the link.
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