Argo, a dramatization of an actual C.I.A. mission to extricate six Americans trapped in Iran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis, opens with a brief political history of Iran that’s told in comic book-style storyboard panels. It initially struck me as an odd approach, but as the movie continued to unfold it made perfect sense. In its assumptions and construction, Argo is a deeply myopic view of the world, one focused through a distinctly – and distorted – American lens.
True, this is an American story, that of C.I.A. “exfiltration expert” Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs). Mendez devises an unconventional plan for getting the six Americans who are hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s home out of Iran: he sets up a legitimate Hollywood production company, flies into the country posing as the Canadian producer of a cheesy sci-fi flick that wants to film in Iran and then attempts to fly out with the six, claiming they’re part of his crew.
Argo is a bit too pleased with its “can-you-believe-it?” premise (we get at least three scenes in which the plan is explained to the open-mouthed disbelief of one superior or another). More disconcerting, however, is the fuel the picture relies on to generate its suspense: an unsettling combination of American jingoism and old-fashioned xenophobia.
I understand that this is a true story with clear bad guys. The revolutionaries who overthrew Iran’s Western-backed dynasty were a brutal bunch, and the early days of transition were filled with the torture and murder of those who had even the slightest ties to the United States. By no means am I asking that this story turn a blind eye toward the abusiveness of the revolutionary regime.
…a deeply myopic view of the world, one focused through a distinctly – and distorted – American lens.
Yet I think it’s worth exploring exactly how the story is told by Argo, and what the effects of that approach might be. In order to generate fear and suspense, the movie plays to our worst impulses. This is a film dominated by screaming men with dark beards; the constant waving of weapons; disorganized gatherings in unfamiliar streets. It’s telling that more often than not, when the Iranian characters speak, their words aren’t translated via subtitles. In short, they’re unfamiliar, unintelligible monsters.
The picture’s definitive scene takes place in an outdoor market, where Mendez has taken his “crew” to convince Iranian officials that they’re scouting locations. Affleck’s camera emphasizes the chaotic nature of the market, the darkness of the various alleys, the unfamiliar, non-Western “otherness.” After one of the Americans has a misunderstanding with a shop owner, the market erupts into more (unintelligible) screaming, pushing and threats. Aside from a quiet young maid in the Canadian ambassador’s house who protects the Americans, Argo is overrun with ugly Iranians.
Am I being too sensitive? Perhaps. But at a time when war with Iran is being discussed in certain American circles, I don’t think this sort of cinematic fear mongering – even in a historical piece – should be easily dismissed. And anyone who thinks Argo is apolitical need only note the picture’s coda, in which two reunited characters embrace on a Norman Rockwell front porch as an American flag billows beautifully in the background.
Which brings me back to that storyboard beginning. By the movie’s end, it seemed perfectly natural that Argo would present another nation’s history via a quintessentially American art form. The movie opens with an act of cultural imperialism, and proceeds downhill from there.