By Rich Mazahreh
These last few months have taught me that only three things are inevitable: death, taxes, and that Ben Affleck’s Argo will win the Oscar for best picture. If you can’t see that coming, then you really haven’t been paying attention to awards season. But I don’t think Argo’s inevitable win is deserved. Simply put, Argo is a lazy film. It focuses more on style than substance, and the result is a very problematic film that vilifies Iran and Iranian culture and glorifies Hollywood for its involvement in the whole affair.
Argo tells the story of the real-life rescue operation entitled the “Canadian Caper,” orchestrated by the United States and Canada during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. It involved CIA agent Tony Mendez and his plot to rescue six US diplomats hiding out at the private residence of Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor. The covert rescue disguised the six diplomats as a production company scouting for a location to shoot a science fiction film called “Argo”. The mission is considered a political triumph for US and Canadian foreign affairs.
Heading into the Golden Globes, Affleck and his film have just about everything going for them. Argo premiered on the first Friday of the Toronto Film Festival in September, which film critic Richard Corliss has dubbed “Oscar Night.” This is a reference to the two films that premiered on the same night last year and the year before that, Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech respectively. Each film would subsequently go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Argo has also won points with the Academy with its embrace of Hollywood folklore. Is it really surprising that Hollywood would favor this film over others of equal quality, when it puts the film industry in such a favorable light? After all, it’s the quintessential American hero story, only this time planned, deployed, and executed with the help of a production company. Frankly, there was no way Argo wasn’t destined for glory, thanks in part to the premise’s appeal in Hollywood. White Americans fighting against a foreign enemy, saved by one man who was daring enough to call on Hollywood for help? Too easy.
Argo’s portrayal of Iran has also been well-received in light of the current political climate and the imminent conflict with Iran. Argo fans the flames of US-Iranian tension by reminiscing on one of its uglier moments in history. For what it’s worth, Argo does give a nod to balanced perspectives, beginning the film with a compact history of CIA involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew Mohammad Mossaddegh and the string of economic events that led to the 1979 revolution. But although that small, stylized storyboard introduction briefly questions America’s moral superiority, it does not change the fact that the film is extremely one-sided in its presentation of US–Iranian relations.
Argo is an entertaining film, but its suspense is fueled by portraying Iran as enemy. It cannot be denied that Iran in some ways has occupied the position of the conditional American foreign enemy, especially since the death of Saddam Hussein, the end of the Gulf War, and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has appeared as a good candidate to the replace Hussein and Bin Laden in the lead role of “evildoer figurehead”. The recontextualization of Iran by the media as an immediate threat cannot be ignored when viewing this film.
Almost all the Iranian characters in Argo appear hostile and/or ill-tempered. Obviously, the tension and hostility felt throughout the country can be attributed to the political turmoil unleashed upon the population. Still, the only legitimate sign of a decent human being amongst the Iranian people is the silent but watchful housemaid of the Canadian ambassador, and even her character is undercut by her subordinate role in society. Argo consistently undermines the culture around it for the sake of adding to the rising suspense of the narrative.
This type of constant tension and impending doom is not only problematic, it’s also a stale, uncreative kind of filmmaking. In his review, Richard Corliss alludes to this: “Argo piles up the dread in any viewer, but it’s a feeling of unease familiar from the suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock and his myriad imitators. Affleck adds nothing new; and the acute sense of place in the director’s first two films, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town, set in his native Boston, is necessarily missing here.” That acute sense of place he describes is missing because the setting, Iran, has been turned into a two-dimensional antagonist, a source of conflict and an obstacle to progress the main characters.
The climax of the film, where Mendez and the other diplomats try to get through the Iranian airport, produces some of the most suspenseful and nerve-racking scenes of last year. It is also where the representation of Iranians reaches its low point. Kevin Lee, of Slate magazine says, “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.” The laziness of Argo takes the form of its vilification of Iran during our current political climate, not exactly a hard task to accomplish. As noted by Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian writer of Iranian descent, the film is a “deeply troubling portrayal of the Iranian people.” Even more troubling is the lack of criticism of the film’s unbalanced depiction of Iran. The film begins with the image of an Iranian burning the American flag and ends with angry fists waving in the air as the Americans make their escape. Historical accuracy aside, this is an uneven (and damaging) representation of the culture.
The film has also received its fair share of criticism for its portrayal of Canadians. In an exclusive interview after the movie’s premiere, Ken Taylor (Canadian ambassador during the whole affair) told Luiza Savage of Maclean’s, “We’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA.” The overshadowing of Canada’s role in the film is just another sign of careless filmmaking. The American hero archetype can only have a sidekick, not an equal as an ally. It is unfortunate because, as Corliss mentions in his review, “..the movie essentially robbed them of Canada’s most significant victory of the past 60 years.” The film severely undermined the role Canada played during the rescue. Curious, since it first garnered critical acclaim after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. The crowd must have been won over by one of those final shots where the Americans are seen holding a sign saying “Thank You Canada”. A token of appreciation for the Canadian “innkeepers,” that sign is one of the greater slights in recent cinematic history.
On Sunday, will the Academy ride the wave of critical praise being thrown at the film, or will they recognize that Argo is not worthy of cinema’s highest honor? It’s an entertaining movie and easy to follow, but it’s also a disparagingly lazy film. It builds tension by being politically negligent in its portrayal of Iran and Iranian culture, but that type of irresponsibility has become a recipe for success in Hollywood. Literary critic Stanley Fish, who gave Argo a favorable review, sums up the film’s biggest flaw: “This is one of those movies that depend on you not thinking much about it; for as soon as you reflect on what’s happening rather than being swept up in the narrative flow, there doesn’t seem much to it aside from the skill with which suspense is maintained despite the fact that you know in advance how it’s to turn out.” I hope the Academy won’t overlook the misrepresentation of Iranian and Canadian roles, I hope they are not blinded by the the obligatory pat on the back for Hollywood’s involvement in the whole affair. Because as fun as it was to watch, Argo shouldn’t win.
Corliss, Richard. “Argo at Toronto : An Oscar for Ben Affleck?” Time Entertainment. September 08 2012.
Lee, B. Kevin. “Argo, F–k Yourself: This year’s worst Best Picture nominee”. Slate Magazine. January 10 2013.
Ghomeshi, Jian. “Argo is crowd-pleasing, entertaining- and unfair to Iranians”. The Globe and Mail. November 02 2012.
Fish, Stanley. “The ‘Argo’ Caper”. The New York Times. October 29 2012