Sunday, October 14, 2012

The trouble with the film "Argo"

by Salman Hameed

I was never a fan of Ben Affleck's acting. However, his directing record has been quite good. Gone Baby Gone, in particular, was an outstanding thriller. Now comes Argo - a movie based on the true story of the rescue of 6 Americans from Iran at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979/80. I will have a review (Film Autopsy) of the film in a few days, but I wanted to point out one particularly troubling aspect of the film. But first, here is the trailer of the film that will give you the overall theme of the film:

Overall, the movie is a taut thriller that will keep you at the edge of your seat. Now, one of the producers of the film is George Clooney, who has been in two of the smartest American films about Middle Eastern politics: Three Kings and Syrianna. If you haven't seen those, you should definitely check those out. So I expected Argo to display a similar kind of nuance. Indeed, the movie begins promisingly. It mentions the messy history of US-Iran relations, including CIA's role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie simply reinforces the stereotypes about Iran. It does stay close to some of the iconic images from the time - a man hanging from a crane, women in black clothes holding guns, blindfolded American hostages - but does not realize that those images themselves were creating a particular narrative in the US press. Now Affleck's movie simply ends up reinforcing the very same stereotypes using a different medium. I would not be surprised at that if the movie was directed and produced by less thoughtful people (hmm...for example, Michael Bay etc).
However, Affleck and Clooney are supposed to be somewhat culturally sensitive to these issues. Just look at the timings. There is an open discussion of the possibility of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. The US consulate in Libya was attacked just this past month. So what is the overall message of the film? Don't say that it is simply telling the story as is. The director makes the choices. And here Affleck chose to only show angry and unhappy Iranians. This is not a documentary either - and a number of elements in the story have been modified (especially towards the end) from the actual events. So it would have been easy to present the movie in a more nuanced way.

This is not as bad as The Devil's Double, which was the supposedly true story about the body-double of Uday Hussein. In that film, one can find a justification for the US invasion of Iraq. Argo is not that bad. However, in the current political climate, it does damage by painting Iranians with the same broad brush often used by popular press. Disappointing.

For a more sophisticated film about Iran, check out A Separation. While we work on our review for Argo, you can see our Film Autopsy of A Separation:

And here is our discussion of The Devil's Double


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