Oscar Prints the Legend:
Argo’s Academy Award and the Failure of Truth
by Nima Shirazi
Originally at Wide Asleep in America
One year ago, after his breathtakingly beautiful Iranian drama, “A Separation,” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, writer/director Asghar Farhadi delivered the best acceptance speech of the night.
“[A]t the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians,” he said, Iran was finally being honored for “her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.” Farhadi dedicated the Oscar “to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”
Such grace and eloquence will surely not be on display this Sunday, when Ben Affleck, flanked by his co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, takes home the evening’s top prize, the Best Picture Oscar, for his critically-acclaimed and heavily decorated paean to the CIA and American innocence, “Argo.”
Over the past 12 months, rarely a week – let alone month – went by without new predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuclear weapon and ever-looming threats of an American or Israeli military attack. Come October 2012, into the fray marched “Argo,” a decontextualized, ahistorical “true story” of Orientalist proportion, subjecting audiences to two hours of American victimization and bearded barbarians, culminating in popped champagne corks and rippling stars-and-stripes celebrating our heroism and triumph and their frustration and defeat. Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir aptly described the film as “a propaganda fable,” explaining as others have that essentially none of its edge-of-your-seat thrills or most memorable moments ever happened. O’Hehir sums up:
The Americans never resisted the idea of playing a film crew, which is the source of much agitation in the movie. (In fact, the “house guests” chose that cover story themselves, from a group of three options the CIA had prepared.) They were not almost lynched by a mob of crazy Iranians in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, because they never went there. There was no last-minute cancellation, and then un-cancellation, of the group’s tickets by the Carter administration. (The wife of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor had personally gone to the airport and purchased tickets ahead of time, for three different outbound flights.) The group underwent no interrogation at the airport about their imaginary movie, nor were they detained at the gate while a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard telephoned their phony office back in Burbank. There was no last-second chase on the runway of Mehrabad Airport, with wild-eyed, bearded militants with Kalashnikovs trying to shoot out the tires of a Swissair jet.
One of the actual diplomats, Mark Lijek, noted that the CIA’s fake movie “cover story was never tested and in some ways proved irrelevant to the escape.” The departure of the six Americans from Tehran was actually mundane and uneventful. “If asked, we were going to say we were leaving Iran to return when it was safer,” Lijek recalled, “But no one ever asked!…The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador’s residence in Berne. It was that straightforward.”
Furthermore, Jimmy Carter has even acknowledged that “90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA…Ben Affleck’s character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”
Taylor himself recently remarked that “Argo” provides a myopic representation of both Iranians and their revolution, ignoring their “more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn’t just a violent demonstration for nothing.”
“The amusing side, Taylor said, “is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he’s talking about.”
O’Hehir perfectly articulates the film’s true crime, its deliberate exploitation of “its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological.” Not only is it “a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue,” but “[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.”
Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck’s own comments about the film. In describing “Argo” to Bill O’Reilly, Affleck boasted, “You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it’s a thriller. It’s actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It’s a complicated CIA movie, it’s a political movie. And it’s all true.” He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he “absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story.”
“It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened,” Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo’s BFI London Film Festival premier, “This movie is about this story that took place, and it’s true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we’re taking a cold, hard look at the facts.”
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, “I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that’s another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible — because I didn’t want it to be used by either side. I didn’t want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them.”
For Affleck, these facts apparently don’t include understanding why the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and occupied on November 4, 1979. “There was no rhyme or reason to this action,” Affleck has insisted, claiming that the takeover “wasn’t about us,” that is, the American government (despite the fact that his own film is introduced by a fleeting – though frequently inaccurate1 – review of American complicity in the Shah’s dictatorship).
Wrong, Ben. One reason was the fear of another CIA-engineered coup d’etat like the one perpetrated in 1953 from the very same Embassy. Another reason was the admission of the deposed Shah into the United States for medical treatment and asylum rather than extradition to Iran to face charge and trial for his quarter century of crimes against the Iranian people, bankrolled and supported by the U.S. government. One doesn’t have to agree with the reasons, of course, but they certainly existed.
Just as George H.W. Bush once bellowed after a U.S. Navy warship blew an Iranian passenger airliner out of the sky over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranian civilians, “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.” Affleck appears inclined to agree.
If nothing else, “Argo” is an exercise in American exceptionalism – perhaps the most dangerous fiction that permeates our entire society and sense of identity. It reinvents history in order to mine a tale of triumph from an unmitigated defeat. The hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days and destroyed an American presidency, was a failure and an embarrassment for Americans. The United States government and media has spent the last three decades tirelessly exacting revenge on Iran for what happened.
“Argo” recasts revolutionary Iranians as the hapless victims of American cunning and deception. White Americans are hunted, harried and, ultimately courageous and free. Iranians are maniacal, menacing and, in the end, infantile and foolish. The fanatical fundamentalists fail while America wins. USA -1, Iran – 0. Yet, “Argo” obscures the unfortunate truth that, as those six diplomats were boarding a plane bound for Switzerland on January 28, 1980, their 52 compatriots would have to wait an entire year before making it home, not as the result of a daring rescue attempt, but after a diplomatic agreement was reached.
Reflecting on the most troubled episodes in American history is a time-honored cinematic tradition. There’s a reason why the best Vietnam movies are full of pain, anger, anguish and war crimes. By contrast, “Argo” is American catharsis porn; pure Hollywood hubris. It is pro-American propaganda devoid of introspection, pathos or humility and meant to assuage our hurt feelings. In “Argo,” no lessons are learned by revisiting the consequences of America’s support for the Pahlavi monarchy or its creation and training of SAVAK, the Shah’s vicious secret police.
On June 11, 1979, months before the hostage crisis began, the New York Times published an article by writer and historian A.J. Langguth which recounted revelations relayed by a former American intelligence official regarding the CIA’s close relationship with SAVAK. The agency had “sent an operative to teach interrogation methods to SAVAK” including “instructions in torture, and the techniques were copied from the Nazis.” Langguth wrestled with the news, trying to figure out why this had not been widely reported in the media. He came to the following conclusion:
We – and I mean we as Americans – don’t believe it. We can read the accusations, even examine the evidence and find it irrefutable. But, in our hearts, we cannot believe that Americans have gone abroad to spread the use of torture.
We can believe that public officials with reputations for brilliance can be arrogant, blind or stupid. Anything but evil. And when the cumulative proof becomes overwhelming that our representatives in the C.I.A. or the Agency for International Development police program did in fact teach torture, we excuse ourselves by vilifying the individual men.
Similarly, at a time when the CIA is waging an illegal, immoral, unregulated and always expanding drone execution program, the previous administration’s CIA kidnappers and torturers are protected from prosecution by the current administration, and leaked State Department cables reveal orders for U.S. diplomats to spy on United Nations officials, it is surreal that such homage is being paid to that very same organization by the so-called liberals of the Tinsel Town elite.
Upon winning his Best Director Golden Globe last month, Ben Affleck obsequiously praised the “clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving over seas, I want to thank them very much,” a statement echoed almost identically by co-producer Grant Heslov when “Argo” later won Best Drama.
This comes as no surprise, considering Affleck had previously described “Argo” as “a tribute” to the “extraordinary, honorable people at the CIA” during an interview on Fox News.
The relationship between Hollywood and the military and intelligence arms of the U.S. government have long been cozy. “When the CIA or the Pentagon says, ‘We’ll help you, if you play ball with us,’ that’s favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda,” David Robb, author of “Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies” told The Los Angeles Times. “The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin.”
Awarding “Argo” the Best Picture Oscar is like Barack Obama winning a Nobel Peace Prize: an undeserved accolade fawningly bestowed upon a dubious recipient based on a transparent fiction; an award for what never was and never would be and a decision so willfully naïve and grotesque it discredits whatever relevance and prestige the proceedings might still have had.*
So this Sunday night, when “Argo” has won that coveted golden statuette, it will be clear that we have yet again been blinded by the heavy dust of politics and our American mantra of hostility and resentment will continue to inform our decisions, dragging us closer and closer to the abyss.
***** ***** *****
* Yes, in this analogy, the equivalent of Henry Kissinger is obviously 2004’s dismal “Crash.”
1 The introduction of “Argo” is a dazzingly sloppy few minutes of caricatured history of Iran, full of Orientalist images of violent ancient Persians (harems and all), which gets many basic facts wrong. In fact, it is shocking this intro made it to release as written and recorded.
Here are some of the problems:
1. The voiceover narration says, “In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mossadegh, the secular democrat, Prime Minister. He nationalized British and U.S. petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people.”
Mossadegh was elected to the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) in 1944. He did not become Prime Minister until April 1951 and was not “elected by the people of Iran.” Rather, he was appointed to the position by the representatives of the Majlis.
Also, the United States did not have petroleum interests in Iran at the time.
2. After briefly describing the 1953 coup, the narrator says Britain and the United States “installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah.”
Wow. First, the Shah’s name was not Reza Pahlavi. That is his father’s (and son’s) name. Furthermore, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was not installed as Shah since had already been Shah of Iran since September 1941, after Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran and forced the abdication of his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi.
During the coup in 1953, the Shah fled to Baghdad, then Rome. After Mossadegh had been forced out, the Shah returned to the Peacock Throne.
This is not difficult information to come by, and yet the screenwriter and director of “Argo” didn’t bother looking it up. And guess what? Ben Affleck actually majored in Middle East Studies in college. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t graduate.
The rest of the brief intro, while mentioning the torture of SAVAK, glosses over the causes of the revolution, but lingers on the violence that followed. As it ends, the words “Based on a True Story” appear on the screen. The first live action moment we see in “Argo” is of an American flag being burned.
So much for Affleck’s insistence that “Argo” is “not a political movie.”
Still, as Kevin B. Lee wrote in Slate last month, “This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive—because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves.”
Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. 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. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.
And brilliantly concludes,
Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans. We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.
Another astute observation comes from Sarah Gillespie, writing in The Palestine Chronicle this past November:
In short, ‘Argo’ ultimately reinforces the binary opposition of a civilized West and a savage Iran. We hear a lot of Farsi in the movie, but only when Farsi is spoken by a Western character is the dialogue given subtitles. Farsi spoken by Iranian characters in the film is merely incomprehensible noise. Here the film accurately mirrors our contemporary reality, in which we inflict our discourse on Iranians, but are incapable of listening to theirs.
February 25, 2013 – On the heels of Oscar Night’s unsurprising coda (made all the more bizarre by the inclusion of Michelle Obama, surrounded by awkward-looking military personnel, presenting the Best Picture to “Argo” from the White House, providing a deeply disturbing governmental imprimatur to the entire proceedings), The Los Angeles Times published a report Monday morning about how “Argo” is being perceived in Iran by Iranians themselves.
The conclusion is clear from the headline: ‘Argo’s’ Oscar gets a thumbs-down in Iran. Journalists Ramin Mostaghim and Patrick J. McDonnell quote several Iranians who have seen the movie, bootlegs of which are widely available, all of whom clearly have a better grasp on, not only the politics, but also the art (or lack thereof) of cinema itself. “The perception that the film portrayed Iranians uniformly as bearded, violent fanatics rankled many who recall that Iran’s 1979 revolution had both secular and religious roots — and ousted a dictatorial monarch, the shah of Iran, reviled as a corrupt and brutal puppet of Washington,” Mostaghim and McDonnel explain. Here’s what we hear from Iranians themselves:
“I am secular, atheist and not pro-regime but I think the film ‘Argo’ has distorted history and insulted Iranians,” said Hossain, a cafe owner worried about business because of customers’ lack of cash in a sanctions-battered economy. “For me, it wasn’t even a good thriller.”
“I did not enjoy seeing my fellow countrymen and women insulted,” said Farzaneh Haji, an educated homemaker and fan of romantic movies who was 18 at the time of the revolution. “The men then were not all bearded and fanatical. To be anti-American was a fashionable idea among young people across the board. Even non-bearded and U.S.-educated men and women were against American imperialism.”
“As an action film or thriller, the film was good, but it was not believable, especially the way the six Americans escaped from the airport,” said Farshid Farivar, 49, a Hollywood devotee, as he stretched his legs in an office where he does promotional work. “At any rate, it was an average film and did not deserve an Oscar.”
The piece ends with the reporters speaking with Abbas Abdi, one of the revolutionary students who planned the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979 and who spent some time in prison a decade ago for criticisms of the Iranian government:
In a brief telephone interview on Monday, Abdi said the Oscars had plummeted to the feeble level of Iran’s own Fajr Film Festival, not exactly one of the luminaries on the international movie awards circuit.
“The Oscars are now vulgar and have standards as low as our own film festival,” he said. “The Oscars deserve ‘Argo’ and ‘Argo’ deserves the Oscars.”
USA Today also has an Oscar follow-up entitled, “Tourists see a different Iran reality than ‘Argo’ image,” which details the warmth, generosity and hospitality of Iranians experienced by travelers when visiting Iran.
February 26, 2013 – Canada’s leading newspaper the Globe and Mail has published an interview with former Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, the man who was primarily responsible for the hiding and rescue of the six American diplomats whose story is told in “Argo.”
Taylor, while accepting “Hollywood’s penchant for poetic licence,” still takes the time to set the record straight.
On the fake Hollywood film concoction that is essentially the entire point of “Argo” and lends the movie its “amazing story” status, Taylor explains that the CIA actually complicated matters by getting involved. He explains:
While the CIA did finally settle on the Hollywood cover idea, Taylor intended for the six Americans to leave on their own as part of a wave of Canadians departing in the normal course of international travel. “I was cutting back the staff,” he recalls. “[The Americans] would just be Canadians going through, some on business, some going back after temporarily serving at the embassy.” Sometime before the date of departure, the CIA decided it wanted to send in two agents to travel with the escapees. “Tony and one other officer came in, then went out. I think they were at the airport and monitored their [departure]. Because there was no interrogation at the airport.”
Regarding the forged documentation attributed to CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck’s character) in the film, Taylor says:
“The documentation was totally prepared in Ottawa.” That included passports, business cards, credit cards and other ephemera (receipts from restaurants in Toronto, Montreal etc.) that would help establish the legitimacy of the six Americans as a Canadian film crew. After one Farsi-speaking member of Taylor’s staff discovered an error in the documents, more passports were issued by Ottawa and couriered via diplomatic pouch to Tehran.
Chris Terrio’s Oscar-winning script lays the tension on thick towards the end of “Argo” when it is revealed that the Canadian Embassy is going to be shut down, thereby leaving the American diplomats with nowhere to hide, thus amplifying the immediacy and urgency of the impending escape. But Taylor throws a bucket a freezing water on this particular twist of the tale, declaring, “It’s inconceivable that Canada would have closed the embassy while U.S. diplomats were still there. It wouldn’t even have occurred to us.”
After the diplomats left Iran, the embassy was indeed closed down. Even after reopening in 1988, Canada and Iran still didn’t exchange ambassadors for another eight years. The embassy was again shuttered, and Iranian diplomats were expelled from their own mission in Ottawa, in September 2012 at the behest of neoconservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In response, James George, who preceded Ken Taylor as Canadian ambassador to Iran, called the move “stupid.” Other former ambassadors expressed concern and condemnation. Taylor himself said on Canadian television shortly after the announcement, “I really can’t see the rationale of this move. It’s a very bold stroke to sever diplomatic relations and close the embassy within five days.”
Incidentally, here is news report from CBC which followed the events depicted in “Argo”:
(h/t Kevin Russell)
February 26, 2013 – It’s not just the Canadians who are peeved over “Argo.” Today, the London-based Daily Mail wrote that the Best Picture is “yet another piece of Hollywood’s Brit-bashing junk history that casts the British in a poor light.”
By way of explanation, Daily Mail‘s Guy Walters points out that “according to the Affleck version of the rescue mission, the six embassy staff were refused refuge by British diplomats. ‘Brits turned them away,’ says a senior CIA character in the film.” He continues:
The truth, however, could not be more different. The British did give their American colleagues sanctuary. Far from being cowards, the Brits were heroes. Many of the British diplomats then stationed in Iran are still alive — and they’re fuming.
‘When I first heard about this film, I was really quite annoyed,’ says Sir John Graham, 86, who was in Tehran at the time of the crisis. Sir John is understandably concerned that Argo will become accepted as the definitive history of what happened.
Walters goes on the tell the tale of how the American diplomats (all six were not yet together at the time), upon leaving the U.S. Embassy, found the British mission surrounded by its own crowd of protesters. The Americans actually all stayed in their own apartments that night and were supposed to be picked up by British officials the next day. The Brits got lost on their way to the rendezvous point, but eventually met up with the Americans, taking them to a British residential compound that was still secure, “offered them a house of their own, fed them a warm meal, [and] even prepared cocktails.” They spent the night there. After that, the American diplomats stayed in various residences in Tehran, often times separately, for a few days before eventually seeking long-term refuge with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor.
The Daily Mail article adds, “Many of the British embassy staff from that time have seen Argo. ‘It does not bear all that much relation to the facts,’ observes Sir David Miers drily. ‘It is not a true story.’ Ben Affleck has acknowledged the film casts Britain in a bad light. ‘But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone,’ he said.”