Argo: From Hollywoodism to Iranophobia

In recent years, Iranophobia has come to encompass a wider scope of media including cinema which is incontestably capable of exercising a more powerful effect on manipulating the audience.

Along the recent Iranophobic attempts comes Argo (2012), a ‘nail-biting thriller’ which according to David Haglund, takes a few liberties with the history. A few liberties, indeed! The false façade of the movie and the glorification of CIA agent Antonio Mendez (the hero, played by Ben Affleck), in particular, and the intelligence apparat, in general, in smuggling the escapees out of Tehran gives a flimsily larger-than-life flair to the movie on the one hand and a too-good-to-be-true feeling to the multitude of audience whose minds have already been hijacked by western media about Iran.

In its crude manner, the movie attempts to describe Iranians as overemotional, irrational, insane, and diabolical while at the same, the CIA agents are represented as heroically patriotic. Argo is replete with historical inaccuracies and distortions. One might say that the titling of the film mentions it is loosely based on Antonio Mendez’s account of the incidents. However, the audience barely finds any slim chance to realize this and all he believes is all he sees. Aye, there’s the rub for in doing so, the movie-maker craftily sees an audience too engrossed in the movie to pay any attention to the titling. Even if he does, the audience’s mind has already imbibed all the lies secretly and dastardly dictated by the movie. This is done with incredible ingenuity. For instance, in one shot, morosely veiled Iranian women are shown to be in military uniforms, a falsity also depicted in an earlier anti-Iran movie titled Not Without My Daughter (1991). After the elapse of thirty-odd years, you may find Iranian women in uniforms but only in female garrisons and not on the streets. So, the depiction of Iranian women in military uniforms is just a figment of the writer’s imagination.

It appears that Argo borrows enormously to Brian Gilbert’s Not Without My Daughter though the former is technically a step forward.  Not Without My Daughter details the story of an American woman who is married to an Iranian doctor. They live happily in America but once they travel to Iran, the man (Alfred Molina) changes from a well-bred and highly educated man to a rustic boar who decides to force his wife Betty (Sally Field) by any means of brute force to stay in Iran. No one knows the reason for such a drastic change in the man, and interestingly, no hiatus apparently takes place in the storyline. Apart from the stereotyped and caricatured view of Iranians the film-maker delivers, he consciously pokes fun at the very customs and traditions within the Iranian community. In one scene, when Betty arrives in Iran (the movie has ironically been filmed in Israel), they slaughter a sheep as a votive offering, the sight of which causes Betty to swoon. This incident, which is part of Iranian tradition, becomes a matter of scorn for the film-maker.

Film critic Roger Ebert says, “If a movie of such a vitriolic and spiteful nature were to be made in America about any other ethnic group, it would be denounced as racist and prejudiced.”

Likewise, Argo is another dastardly attempt at fanning Iranophobia by continuing Brian Gilbert’s Not Without My Daughter.

Though Argo achieves some degree of success in stereotyping and demonizing Iranians, the movie is at best a propaganda flick barely unworthy of the kudos it receives, not because it is one big yawn but because it is poorly structured and frivolously written.

Strangely, the film ingeniously seeks to appear balanced by inserting a voice-over at the beginning of the film describing how the popular government of Mossadegh was overthrown through a coup engineered by the CIA and how Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (who is erroneously referred to as Reza Pahlavi) tyrannized people. However, the mere mention of a CIA-engineered coup is not enough to make the film balanced. Argo is a far cry from a balanced narration. Everything is narrated one-sidedly. Everything is depicted as black and white. The escapees are good and have to be saved with the help of the CIA agent who ridiculously functions to bring about catharsis in the audience while the Iranians are depicted as demonic and hysteric. Thus, sympathy is easily wrung from the audience in favor of the CIA agent, and the entire Iranian population is tragically portrayed in a negative light.

In fact, authoring a coup in Iran is not the CIA’s magnum opus. The intelligence apparat was notoriously instrumental by manipulating the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to wage war against Iran causing over one million casualties.

According to Said K. Aburish, author of Saddam Hussein: the Politics of Revenge, Saddam made a visit to Amman in 1979 before the Iran–Iraq War. There, he met King Hussein and three CIA agents. Aburish says there is considerable evidence that he discussed his plans to invade Iran with the CIA agents. As a political product of Washington’s mind, Saddam was on intimate terms with the US. Aburish says that it was “a relationship of cooperation, but never trust. Neither side never trusted the other. And they helped him stay in power by providing him with electronic systems to guard against a coup d’état. They helped him stay in power by providing him with armament that he needed badly. They helped him stay in power by refusing to raise the issue of human rights. And they helped him to stay in power by supporting him during the war with Iran. So they really helped him, practically politically, practically financially, any way you can look at it.”

It is very probable that Ben Affleck and the screen writer Chris Terrio are sorely ignorant of these facts or else they would have incorporated some of these facts in Argo to provide balance.

Or would they?

Overall, Argo is an arrant instance of Hollywoodism. In point of fact, it is yet another attempt to foment Iranophobia not only in the USA but across the world.

Dr. Ismail Salami is an Iranian journalist, political analyst and lexicographer. A former editor in chief of the Tehran Times Daily, he is currently professor of English literature at the University of Tehran. Read other articles by Ismail.