Argo: Time to Grow Up and Get Angry?
by Kieran Kelley
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” – Gloria Steinem.
There have been a number of critical condemnations of the film Argo. The most thoroughgoing that I have read is this one. What seems to me to be missing is any critique that successfully conveys the utter ludicrousness of expecting something other than lying propaganda to come out of a Hollywood film about the CIA in 1979. It is like expecting the Soviets to have made an accurate and unbiased account of KGB activities during the Prague Spring. I saw the preview before the film’s release, and after about 5 or 10 seconds of suspense it became apparent that it was a load of crap – the usual Orientalist stuff, straight out of the Reel Bad Arabs playbook, except with Persians instead of Arabs. The film mirrors the preview – at first it seems possible that one might be about to see a balanced and thoughtful movie, and then… not. Decidedly not.
Let me begin with some historical context. The CIA’s first coup in Iran, considered at the time “its greatest single triumph”,1 brought the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi to a position of supreme power. The CIA “wove itself into Iran’s political culture”.2 They created SAVAK, a notorious “intelligence” agency, trained in torture by the CIA3 and supported by the CIA and DIA in a domestic and international dissident assassination programme.4 Repression was at its peak between 1970 and 1976 resulting in 10,000 deaths.5 By 1976 Amnesty International’s secretary general commented that Iran had “the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture that is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record of human rights than Iran.”6
Nafeez Ahmed cites the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) who detail an extensive police state of intense surveillance and informant networks and torture “passed on to it” by US, UK and Israeli intelligence. Ahmed quotes the FAS on methods including “electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails.”7 Racism allows commentators such as Tim Weiner to blithely exculpate the CIA of fundamental guilt: “The CIA wanted SAVAK to serve as its eyes and ears against the Soviets. The shah wanted a secret police to protect his power.”8 After all, what could civilised Westerners teach Orientals about torture? But something of the real US attitude to such repression can be seen in the official reaction to the unrest developing in the late 1970s. Aside from US officials consistently urging and praising military responses to protest action, including inevitable massacres,9 the US ambassador objected strongly to a reduction in repression. In June 1978 he reported his finding that, “the Shah’s new directives to his security forces, such as instructions to desist from torture… are disorienting.”10 The funny thing about this was that it occurred after the US had forced the Shah into the liberalisation that set loose the forces that were to rip his régime apart.11 This may seem puzzling, but it made more sense for the US to push Iran into the easily vilified “enemy” hands of an Islamic theocracy than to try to maintain control over a Shah who, however repressive, was determined to develop his populous oil-rich country independently.
That is the key point that you will almost never hear about: the US was sick of the Shah. He had become too nationalistic and developmentally inclined, and they didn’t want him any more. They may not have really wanted a revolution in Iran, but they weren’t going to shed tears over the Shah’s departure. Their main fear was the strength of the secular revolutionary left, which had more popular power than the Islamists (despite SAVAK’s repression) so the US helped nurture the Islamist factions.
The CIA were far from unaware of the impending fall of the Shah’s régime, here is a quote in the film which is an instance of absolute barefaced deception: “Iran is 100% not in a pre-revolutionary state. CIA brief, November first, 1979.” Let’s not be stupid here – it is one thing to claim not to know of an impending revolution, but the film is claiming that the CIA were unaware of a revolution that had already happened. Of course some people in the CIA knew that revolution was brewing and the actual CIA brief was from August 1978 and was plainly dishonest even then. By that stage even the State Department was planning for a post-Shah Iran.12 The revolution had actually happened nearly a year before Argo claims that the CIA believed it wasn’t going to happen (the Shah fled Iran in January, Khomeini returned from exile on February 1). But Argo makers really, really, really want you to “know” that the CIA were caught flat-footed and are willing to go to considerable lengths to make you believe this lie.
There is another deception in the film which indicates a conscious systematic attempt to indoctrinate the audience. Some describe Argo as “well-intentioned but fatally flawed”, but these “good intentions” cannot possibly be reconciled with the disgusting propaganda treatment of the issue of the shredded documents put together by Iran. The documents seized by radicals in the embassy takeover were the Wikileaks of their time. Most seized documents were not shredded and they exposed massive systematic illegality and wrongdoing by US personnel, especially the CIA. They were extremely historically significant. Iran spent years piecing together the shreds and the reconstruction was a major intelligence and propaganda coup. In the film, however, we see a very different narrative played out, and we are shown a set of very different images.
In the film, for some inexplicable reason, there were xeroxed photographic images of the staff who had escaped from the embassy when it was seized by radicals. Could this simply be a cinematic plot device for generating suspense? Not really. Any number of other devices might have been used – such as a dragnet, or informants, or surveillance (mobile or static), signals interception and cryptography. You name it, if you are willing to make stuff up, then there is quite a lot you could make up that would be potentially more suspenseful and, unlike this particular conceit, wouldn’t run such a risk of the audience losing their suspension of disbelief because of such an obvious unrealism.
“Realism”, I should add, is a very import aspect of this film. It is not done in a documentary style, but is presented as a dramatisation of historical events. Let me illustrate with a quote at length from Wide Asleep in America:
[Salon's Andrew] 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.”
To emphasise this point, the initial part of the end credits juxtaposes images from the film with real documentary images. They show how much the actors look like the people they portray. The show how they had faithfully recreated scenes from the revolution. And they show the teeny tiny hands a the poor slave children forced to piece together shredded CIA documents. Wait a second though… don’t the hands in the real photo, despite severe cropping, look more like a woman’s hands? And why would young children be used to piece together valuable and vulnerable documents written in a language that they could not possibly understand?
For some reason the film makers took it upon themselves to invent a whole bunch of “sweatshop kids” putting together these documents. There is no conceivable reason to do so that does not involve conscious deceptive propaganda. In this case, the intent is to make deliberate emotive subliminal association. What do I mean by subliminal? As Joe Giambrone explains:
The father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, wrote in the late 1920s:
“The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world to-day. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions. The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” (Bernays 1928)
Bernays noted the “unconscious” character of much film propaganda. It was not necessary to directly state messages, but to let the scenarios and the story world carry the messages in the background. Once immersed in the foreground story — whatever it was — the “unconscious” background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge.
This subliminal quality is praised by Bernays as a positive thing, in his view. This is hardly surprising as Bernays’ concept of propaganda is broad in scope encompassing every medium and method of communication that exists. Bernays’ seminal book Propaganda begins:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” (Bernays 1928)”
Subliminality doesn’t mean that images are flashed too quickly to be noticed, rather that associations are made without conscious thought. It is true that you can find a great number of deliberately concealed images in advertising, but the claim that this is all that constitutes subliminal advertising is itself a deception. Advertising, in particular television advertising, is dominated by subliminal messaging, and it is not about tricky concealment. It uses repetition more than anything else, to make associations between advertised products and services with other desires – particularly, but not exclusively, sexual. If you want to sell a car, you don’t generally use brake horsepower or fuel consumption statistics. You associate it with a lifestyle, with attractive people, with status, with sex, with success, with normalcy, with excitement, with fine wine and food, and so forth. That is subliminal.
Obviously when film makers are unconsciously disseminating their own internalised propaganda they convey such messages subliminally. Subliminal means below the threshold, meaning, in this case, below the threshold of consciousness. This is a very, very significant manner in which an orthodox ideology, such as chauvinist US exceptionalism, is deepened and perpetuated. However the deliberate use of techniques designed to manipulate people by subliminal means can be far more powerful still. As an apposite example, let us examine Michelle Obama’s Oscar night appearance. Some have pointed out that Obama being flanked by military personnel as “props” suggests a desire to subliminally associate the First Lady and the presidency with military virtues. That may well be the case, but think how common it is to see faces arrayed behind political speakers in our times. Every time it is possible to do so nowadays, major US politicians will have a bunch of people in uniform behind them when they speak. But it is not strictly about the association with uniforms. Press conferences often pose colleagues behind the speaker – including military briefings almost as a matter of course – and when politicians speak to political rallies or party conferences, they are framed by a sea of supporters’ faces behind them.
You see, we automatically respond to other people’s facial expressions. In fact eliciting an emotional response is as much a component of facial expression as conveying emotion is, and this occurs subliminally. Now think again of Giambrone’s description: “… the ‘unconscious’ background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge….” The people behind the speaker are being used as a way of evoking an emotional reaction like some science fiction mind control ray. Fortunately, people are fickle creatures and often their reaction to watching the back of a speaker’s head, no matter how eloquent, is to look bored or embarrassed. But clearly the technique is being perfected, and the people chosen are those who can be relied upon to convey the right emotions, hence the predilection for military personnel and partisan enthusiasts.
Similarly, subliminal messaging in advertising and film is often also aimed at a gut level. They are not conveying particular ideas, but emotions. The victim (I mean viewer) can rationalise these emotions any way they might later choose, and the brilliance of the system is that it enlists every victim’s own inventiveness tailored in response to each specific circumstance that might challenge or belie the conditioned sentimental sense of reality. So where does this leave us with regards to Argo‘s mythical “sweatshop kids”? We have precisely four references to them. The first is in our hero’s initial briefing: “The bastards are using these [pause and do gesture to indicate need to
convey novel concept] mmm sweatshop kids.” Nearly an hour later, we are shown about 5 seconds of the “sweatshop”. It actually looks very stupid if you pay attention to it, but it is over too quickly to register (more subliminality similar to that used in The Hurt Locker). What it actually shows, when the camera pulls back to reveal the scene for around one second, is dozens of children aged about five to eight sitting amidst piles of paper shreds. There is an unnatural hush, redolent with a sense of fear. Half of them are just staring into space, and there is no conceivable way that any of them could actually be doing any useful work. Accompanying the scene is one of the 16 tracks on the official soundtrack. It is called “Sweatshop” and here it is:
Note the image chosen for the album cover.