“Argo” as Orientalism and why it Upsets Iranians

The taking of US diplomatic personnel hostage by radical Iranian activists and angry crowds in November of 1979, and then the backing for this action of the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was profoundly illegal. I know some of the former hostages, and deeply sympathize with their trauma. Nothing justifies what was done to them.

But Ben Affleck’s otherwise fine, Oscar-winning film, “Argo,” about the escape of some US embassy personnel, functions as American propaganda and a sort of neo-Orientalism. That it was based on a memoir of the incident by a former Central Intelligence Agency operative involved in the rescue is part of the problem. That memoir is a primary source and valuable, but good history, and good story-telling about history, weights sources and tries to correct for their biases. “Argo” does not. Some of the Iranian objections to the film are equally grounded in propaganda concerns, but some are legitimate.

It isn’t just that the memoir slights the massive contribution of the Canadian embassy and Canadian diplomats to the mission and plays up the relatively minor CIA role. (Virtually every good idea that contributed to the success of the rescue came from Canada, but somehow American movie audiences insist that it all has to be about us.) Nor that Britain’s important role is denied and even denigrated Nor is my main objection that a whole series of exciting events are invented that never occurred. It is that the entire context for these events is virtually absent and the Iranian characters are depicted as full of mindless rage.

Although the film begins with an info-dump that explains that the US screwed over Iran by having the CIA overthrow the elected government in 1953 and then helped impose a royal dictatorship in the form of the restored shah, that part of the film is emotionally flat. It tells, it doesn’t show. It is tacked on. It does not intersect with the subsequent film in any significant way. It therefore has no emotional weight and does little to contextualize the Iranian characters (none of whose names I think we even learn).

Former hostage and superb American diplomatic John Limbert makes the same point in Foreign Policy:

“Argo highlights the negative attitudes that the two countries have held toward each other for decades. Its brief introduction attempts to provide historical context behind the embassy takeover, but the film does not convey the prevailing Iranian sense of grievance — real or imagined — that led to the 1979 attack, and to the emotional response in the streets of Tehran . . . More than three decades later, the same atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust, and festering wounds dominates Iranian-American relations.”

You could have had Iranian characters angry that the American-backed Shah or king, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, had arbitrarily imprisoned them or their friends among the dissidents, and had subjected both intellectuals and members of openly revolutionary groups to torture and murder in prison. That would not in any way have justified what was done to Foreign Service Officers of the State Department, but it would have humanized the Iranian villains of the piece and made the film more complex and less like a comic book.

“Argo” could have been a moment when Americans come to terms with their Cold War role as villains in places like Iran. It could have been a film about what intelligence analysts call “blowback,” when a covert operation goes awry. Instead it plays into a ‘war on terror’ narrative of innocent Americans victimized by essentially deranged foreign mobs.

Muhammad Sahimi writes,

” Mehdi Rezaei, an MKO member, was arrested in April 1972 and executed that September at the age of 20, after enduring horrific torture. Ali Asghar Badizadegan, one of the MKO’s founders, was forced into an electric oven according to his comrade Lotfollah Meysami. He was burned so badly that he became paralyzed, and the SAVAK refused to turn over his body after he was executed in May 1972. As Ali Gheissari writes in Iranian Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century, under Sabeti the Committee was also “responsible for the arbitrary detention, interrogation, and torture of many university students during that period.”

The Shah’s feared secret police, and his entire repressive regime, did not function completely on their own. They had been installed by the US in cooperation with far rightwing Iranian generals and the Iranian equivalent of billionaires, and SAVAK and the regime continued to have close links to the CIA. It is alleged that some of the torture techniques used by the Shah’s SAVAK were taught to them by the CIA. And, it is further alleged that the CIA itself had front groups on and was active in spying on Iranian campuses, in parallel to operations such as COINTELPRO in the US. The anti-Shah Iranian students piecing together shredded US embassy cables in Tehran weren’t looking for photos of the escaped diplomats, as “Argo” implies. (There was no last-minute identification of them or car chase on the tarmac– that was all made up). They were looking for evidence of the ways the intelligence officials under cover at the embassy had been monitoring them and their friends and putting them in torture cells.

Such spying on Iranian dissidents was a very minor part of what US intelligence was doing in Iran at that time– allegedly only three field officers even knew Persian. Mostly they were using Iran as a listening base to spy on the Soviet Union. But keeping Iran subservient and docile was key for Washington to remaining able to deploy its petroleum for Western economic success versus the Warsaw Pact and Communist China, and to being able to use Iran for monitoring the USSR. Hence, some resources were also devoted to repressing critics of the shah. And while liasing with SAVAK to arrest intellectuals and dissidents may have been a subsidiary effort for the Agency, for those whose lives were ruined by the Shah’s apparatus of repression, it rather bulked large.

The US embassy personnel taken captive were not responsible for the Shah and what he did to the Iranian people, but the US government did whatever it could to back the Shah and protect him from international criticism.

The Iranian crowds are depicted in the film as irrational mobs. The Revolutionary Guards at the airport are depicted as angry puritans, worried about Marvel artist Jack Kirby’s somewhat salacious storyboards for the proposed “Lord of Light” film that the CIA optioned for the operation (based on a novel by Roger Zelazny). No Iranian character in the film who has a legitimate grievance against US policy is permitted to be sympathetic or to have any intimate moments that would humanize him or her.

The film tells but doesn’t show some of the US atrocities in Iran. It shows the plight of the hapless US diplomats. In making that key dramatic decision, and then in Orientalizing the Iranian protagonists as angry and irrational, the film betrays its subject matter and becomes propaganda, lacking true moral or emotional ambiguity. Roger Zelazny’s and Jack Kirby’s “Lord of Light” would have been more nuanced.

73 Responses

  1. Well done. Like our march to war on Iraq, ARGO just adds to the mountain of propaganda that has been building relentlessly for years to justify destroying Iran’s economy and culture. Looking at the heart wrenching results in Iraq, Iran has a very bleak future indeed. Pray for Iran. Pray for America’s soul.

  2. As long as we’re being fair…

    (And I would be the last to argue that our country’s prevailing attitude toward “the other” are even faintly thoughtful, or that Hollywood’s net contribution encourages understanding)

    … I think it’s a little unfair to use the “comic book,” in general, as the yardstick for simplification and dehumanization of opponents. “Comic book villains” are often remarkably three-dimensional characters, with motivations considerably more nuanced than were (apparently) the antagonists in the latest Academy Award-winning film. Not always, but surprisingly often.

    • I’m a big fan of comic books, but their hallmark really is to demonize the villains and there are very seldom nuances. Marvel and some indies did more in that direction. The space invaders in The Avengers are mindless drones and mechanical reptiles, e.g. That’s protesting a bit much.

  3. Good work, I couldn’t agree more. As art the film is humdrum, the acting, aside from the Hollywood brio, adequate but dull. It was a fallback from Zero Dark Thirty, a film that also slices and dices history to enable Americans to think of themselves as victims. As such, it’s counterpointed well by Oliver Stone’s Untold History series, which will never win any awards because it’s not delusional (or could it be illusional?).

    • “As such, it’s counterpointed well by Oliver Stone’s Untold History series”

      Oliver Stone’s “Untold History” series is definitely slanted toward Stone’s jaundiced view of American history. It omits anything that would undercut Stone’s idea of American history being one long march of perfidy, deception, and aggression, while piling on extraneous material that purports to support it. Stone is in the same category as Michael Moore, which does not say much for his portrayal of history.

      The difference between “Argo” and Stone’s “Untold History” series is “Argo” does not purport to be history; it aspires to be nothing more than what it is, a film based on historical events, and it readily admits to using artistic license, just as did the film “Zero Dark Thirty.” Stone, on the other hand, holds to the conceit that his series is historically accurate. A fanciful conceit indeed.

      • Because it’s not like mainstream apolitical Americans aren’t being continually bombarded with nationalistic and even racist bias about our history that Stone needs to offset, right?

        • You probably still believe Lyndon Johnson’s version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident… and that it justifies the million Vietnamese who died as a result. Oh yeah, and the Spanish blew up the Maine.

          The patriotic lies are the ones that get people killed with our tax dollars.

        • “Because it’s not like mainstream apolitical Americans aren’t being continually bombarded with nationalistic and even racist bias about our history that Stone needs to offset, right?”

          Wrong. The job of a historian is not to “offset” anything. The job of a historian is to present history as accurately as possible, using valid primary and secondary sources.

        • “You probably still believe Lyndon Johnson’s version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident… and that it justifies the million Vietnamese who died as a result. Oh yeah, and the Spanish blew up the Maine.”

          Don’t be so presumptuous and arrogant as to suggest you know what I believe or don’t believe. Stick to your own opinions; don’t purport to know mine on every subject.

      • “The difference between “Argo” and Stone’s “Untold History” series is “Argo” does not purport to be history”

        But you, I, and the people who made it know full well that the people who go to see it will consider it to be history.

        • “But you, I, and the people who made it know full well that the people who go to see it will consider it to be history.”

          Just as many of the conspiratorially-minded considered Stone’s “JFK” to be history, although its theme of a conspiracy among the military, CIA, and top levels of the national security establishment to assassinate Kennedy was a fable.

      • You say that Stone’s work is jaundiced and inaccurate. Tell us one thing that is inaccurate. You lump Stone with Moore. Moore hasn’t presented his view of politics in a history.

        • “You say that Stone’s work is jaundiced and inaccurate. Tell us one thing that is inaccurate.”

          There are many. But you asked for one. Stone’s contention that the Japanese were ready to surrender in the summer of 1945, before the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is wildly inaccurate. The Japanese made it clear that they might agree to a cessation of hostilities only if they kept the architecture of the emperor, they could keep their conquests in China, that there would be no allied occupation of Japan, and any war crimes tribunals would be conducted by the Japanese, not the allies.

          Barring the above, the Japanese War Cabinet was adamant in continuing the fight, expecting that the allies would invade the Japanese home islands. You won’t get any of that from Stone because it would upset his Narrative of the U.S. missing an opportunity to make peace in the Pacific.

        • @Bill, re Japan: All you present here is the baldest of bald assertions about what was in play in mid-1945, dismissing for consistency with your world view a different way “these proceedings,” the Great Asian War, could, maybe should, have been “concluded,” in MacArthur’s sonorous phrase. Nicely consistent with the Majority Narrative you consistently represent, but there’s a whole lot of what you say “history” is supposed to be about that says you, in this instance, among others, are just flat wrong. But I bet you know that, in your historian’s heart of hearts. The goal, after all, is to get enough people in our voting class to believe, and persist in believing, the myths and cover stories, even against evidence and common sense. Which has always been part of how power is accumulated and extended, here or in Imperial Japan or even Myanmar.

          For anyone interested in the degree to which our CIA, among other “agencies,” has infested the imagery and discourse of the world at all levels, you could do worse than wade through this horriterrific HISTORY text: “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA In The World of Arts and Letters,” link to robertboynton.com

      • America’s history since about 1890 HAS been nothing else but one long march of perfidy, deception, and aggression, with the brief exception of the Popular Front type movements in the 30s and early 40s. When the Truman/Acheson government came in, though, it was all over. The NSC and CIA took over foreign policy vs. the USSR and we allied ourselves with the most disgusting scumbags on the planet. There is no excuse for American conduct, no excuse for My Lai, no excuse for SAVAK, no excuse for EL Salvador and Guatemala and Chile and Panama. None.

        Unfortunately, these Hollywood films become the view of history in the popular imagination. Woodrow Wilson believed Reconstruction had been like Birth of a Nation. Modern university students believe Gone with the Wind. When I was in high school a teacher showed Witness (Hollywood Amish) as background for reading The Chosen (Hasidic Jews)! In fact, I will go so far as to suggest that this factually weak, self-gongratulatory psuedo-history our culture has created leads precisely to the factually weak, self-congratulatory, and morally bereft content of the comment above.

        • “In fact, I will go so far as to suggest that this factually weak, self-gongratulatory psuedo-history our culture has created leads precisely to the factually weak, self-congratulatory, and morally bereft content of the comment above.”

          The above quote is interesting, coming from one who makes categorical statements about America’s role in the world during the Cold War without providing any context or evidence to back up his black-and-white view of events. If you were to really apply yourself to the study of the dynamics at play during the Cold War you would find a much more nuanced set of events driving American foreign policy. That’s not to say American foreign policy was always correct, but it is to say it was not always the evil force you seem to believe it was.

      • American history is indeed jaundiced, even in its abridged version that is taught in schools across the country it is filled with deception, aggression, racism, bigotry, perfidy and deception, that is why Oliver Stone uses the word “untold”, with or without Oliver Stone (s) of the world our history is not something to be proud of, it is something we need to contend with and come to terms with.
        “A Film based on Historical Event” does purport to be partly history, just the same way that “A film based on true story” purport to be based on reality.
        “Using Artistic License” is a nice term that I should remember to describe a “B rated” movies.
        Let us say that the Academy recognized three fanciful movies this year, “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Argo” and “Lincoln” and they awarded the Best Director to Ang Lee for a movie which was Fanciful and didn’t need “artistic License” and wasn’t based on made-up historical events.

        • “Using “Artistic License” is a nice term that I should remember to describe “B rated” movies.”

          …and Oliver Stone productions masquerading as history.

  4. Why claim that they have engaged in Orientalist behavior and not just claim more accurately that they have engaged in Stereotypical behaviour.

    • Because the west has some very specific stereotypes they accord to the east, dating back a long way. Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu was just one example of the yellow peril when demonizing Chinese; there were similar demonizations of Japanese as well in the 20th century. Those lead, however unconsciously, to assumptions that we make about other people, other countries, other cultures.

      There is enough rampant Islamophobia already. We do not need to add to it. This argument very articulately makes the case for a specific type of bias and a very specific stereotype.

      • >Because the west has some very specific stereotypes they accord to the east

        All stereotypes are specific regardless of the geographical position.

        > Those lead, however unconsciously, to assumptions that we make about other people, other countries, other cultures.

        This is true of all stereotypes held by those in any region of the world.

        • >All stereotypes are specific regardless of the geographical position.

          What i mean by this is that the stereotypes of the east or no more specific than the stereotypes of those else-where.

  5. What about the maid at the Canadian ambassador’s house? She had a minor role, but she was portrayed as being sympathetic to the Americans or at least to her boss.

    • I had the same thought, but after reflection, I think that in many ways the maid was simply a dramatic device to compound the viewer’s impression of the frightening irrationality of all of the other Iranians in the film. She’s not really characterized in any way, that I can recall.

      But there is some kind of play with the character’s role, and whether she’s trustworthy or not. There’s that series of scenes where it’s unclear whether she will remain loyal to her employer, which she ultimately does– but it’s unclear for a while. It doesn’t quite atone for the mindless hordes in the rest of the movie, but it may perhaps open up the possibility that the viewer will reflect on his or her gut-level anxieties about the Iranian people.

    • Yes but she is escaping at the end of the movie! I watched this movie and had one thought: if bombs were to fall on Iran tomorrow, Argo and the first lady Obama have done a convincing job of justifying the ensuing death and destruction! Please do a search on the colossal behind the scenes work by top Hollywood execs to parade Obama and Argo in the same place at the same time! And a disclaimer: I am not a conspiracy theorist!

  6. Wow, I didn’t realise Lord of Light – one of my favourite novels, see link to dannyreviews.com – had a connection with the Iranian Revolution! Thanks for bringing that to my attention – and for the rest of the post, which does a great job of setting the film in its historical context.

  7. professor, did you know that the CIA coup of 1953was plotted from US Embassy in Tehran? This has a great bearing on why US Embassy was seized in 1979. Iranians are used to the mendacity which is called US Foreign Policy. Just read Kinzer’s account of US Ambassodor Henderson lying to Mossadegh’s face regarding demonstrations in Tehran the day before the coup in his all the Shah’s men. The old man was duped by American professed anticolonialism. If Mossadegh had read just one book on American history, the course of Iranian history would have been different, I bet.

  8. When I lived in D.C. in the early ’70s, we’d join the Iranian Students in their demos and programs against the Shah. They always wore brown bags to cover their faces. We didn’t. The contrast was striking. Because most of the students I knew tended towards secularism, their victory was short-lived.

    Mossedeq was elected PM to nationalize the oil industry. Besides skimming off the wealth of the nation, British Petroleum provided substandard living and working conditions for Iranian oil workers, all documented in the fine book, “All the Shah’s Men”.

    Once again, the US could have won the allgiance of Iranians for decades if it had opposed the 1953 British backed coup against Mossedeq instead of supporting and enabling it out of a misplaced loyalty to Europe’s last vestiges of colonial rule. left of the colonial system.

    That is the tragedy of the post WW!! era and the Cold War strategy. Instead of taking up the banner of national revolution and democracy in former colonies, the US handed them over to Soviet support, throwing away the good will it garnered among great and poor nations alike after WW11

    • “That is the tragedy of the post WW!! era and the Cold War strategy. Instead of taking up the banner of national revolution and democracy in former colonies, the US handed them over to Soviet support, throwing away the good will it garnered among great and poor nations alike after WW11.”

      You have a point, but in the case of Iran (which was never a colony) this is not entirely true. After World War II the Soviet Union was occupying a swath of northern Iran and would no doubt have remained there had the U.S. not applied pressure on Stalin to retreat. It was due to U.S. pressure that the Soviets backed off their occupation and departed Iran.

      • The State Department (George Kennan) had advised the US apply diplomatic pressure. Acheson preferred CIA intrigue. So we get SAVAK in place of the Soviet occupation of a “swath” that had formerly been occupied by the British. Unless you believe the Iranians have no right to elect their government, America betrayed its supposed democratic principles in returning the Shah to power. It’s morally repugnant to suggest that forcing people to burn themselves to death is justified by our preference for one military ocuppier over another.

        • “Unless you believe the Iranians have no right to elect their government, America betrayed its supposed democratic principles in returning the Shah to power.”

          I fail to see where your statement challenges mine: “After World War II the Soviet Union was occupying a swath of northern Iran and would no doubt have remained there had the U.S. not applied pressure on Stalin to retreat. It was due to U.S. pressure that the Soviets backed off their occupation and departed Iran.”

          If you think my above statement (about the U.S. applying pressure on Stalin to quit the occupation of northern Iran) to be incorrect, then please advise your reading of that event. As to America returning the Shah to power, I made no comment about that unfortunate event and am wondering what relevance your criticism has to my comment.

    • That is the tragedy of the post WW!! era and the Cold War strategy. Instead of taking up the banner of national revolution and democracy in former colonies, the US handed them over to Soviet support, throwing away the good will it garnered among great and poor nations alike after WW11

      So true. There was no good reason why the revolutionaries in El Salvador, for instance, couldn’t have been American allies.

      Why we blew this opportunity is an interesting question. I blame commercial relationships between American elites and the oligarchs.

    • The US had a bad habit after WW2 of trying to perpetuate the colonial brutality of the British, French and others.

      - The US tried to take over for the French in Vietnam after supporting the Vietnamese in their fight against the Japanese.

      - The US took over from the Brits in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and much of the middle east.

      - The US took over from the French in Lebanon.

      The bottom line is the US tried to continue the empires of the Brits, French and others after the old empires started to fall apart. As a result, the hatred for the Brits, French and other colonial powers just got transferred to the US. Most of this was because of the paranoia of John Foster Dulles that thought that if the US let the former colonies be independent, they would become “communist” and join with the soviet union in opposition to the US. This just illustrates that JFD had no understanding that the former colonies just wanted to be free of all control, not throw off one type of control for another (soviet union).

      At this point in time, the BEST thing the US could do is stop trying to suppress nationalist feelings in the former colonies and let them choose how they want to live.

      • This perspective is absolutely untrue. The US was perfectly happy to see the end of Anglo-French direct colonialism and helped the Algerians get shut of the French, e.g. The US had a different model, of indirect influence, mainly fueled by desire for trade expansion and by anti-communism. It could be brutal and oppressive, as in Honduras or Iran, but in other instances it was anti-colonial and anti-feudal. I recommend Matthew Connelly on Algeria if you’d like to actually, like, read some history instead of spouting groupthink.

        • Juan, I don’t know about what “the US” did in respect to French and other interests in Algeria, or why (any of the complex “whys” that make up post-hoc parsing of “policy”).

          I’m stuck on the Vietnam/Southeast Asia/Dominoes thing. I saw a little tiny part of it for a year, and then read a whole lot and talked a whole lot trying to figure out what happened. The best synthesis I’ve come across was in Barbara Tuchman’s in “The March of Folly,” dismissed by some as just the product of someone with an “agenda.” The conclusion was that for a whole lot of reasons, the US apparatus did in fact try pretty hard to extend French colonial positions in “Indo-China,” and then just descended by the usual momentum of industrial warfare and “anti-Somethingorother-ism” into all that followed. Ending up with “Made in Vietnam” labels on clothing and stuff in Walmart, 50,000 dead GIs and 2 million dead “gooks,” trillions in debt, and the growth of the current thing we support.

          Is that just groupthink, or is there the necessary quantum of “what actually happened” to be mostly and importantly true?

          “Argo.” “Platoon.” “The Deer Hunter.” “Full Metal Jacket.” “Apocalypse Now.” Etc. How to screen the Movie-ized images against all those words in all those books? It’s hard, in all of this, to try to tease out the honest big picture from all the disparate sources and voices. And maybe, given the reality, it’s just a fool’s errand to even try?

  9. Thank you Mr. Cole, so much, for this well explained view of the ‘other side’ of the story. I smelled a fish even in the previews for this film. The style and questionable intentions of it remind me of that vile neocon propaganda tv show, ’24′.

  10. Hey, it’s only a movie. Films like Argo are dramatic stories, not documentaries. You’re absolutely right about Iranians being stereotyped and the minimization of the Canadian role. But the White House bureaucrats, CIA bosses and Hollywood producers are stock characters too (feckless, cynical and glib.) That’s show business. That Affleck even attempted to put the story in the context of American perfidy in Iran is admirable, especially considering the context and constraints of Hollywood filmmaking. The sins of “Zero Dark Thirty” are so much greater, but it’s a good thing that the historical flaws in both films are prompting discussion and debate about the events they portray. A more accurate and less dramatic film probably wouldn’t have been nominated for an Academy Award, let alone won Best Picture. Such a film might have been more pleasing to historians, but it would have had little social impact.

    • Perhaps you are right. I wonder if the initial “data dump” explaining the US involvement in bringing the Shah to power might be a revelation to most Americans. Even that small history lesson might be useful.

    • I understand your comment and what you say is useful in explaining what we are. However, my wish would be that History (as real and fair as it can be)would form the basis for our “foreign relations”. To me is seems “King of the Hill” and “my team can beat your team” are somewhat out of date in a World (with all its lifeforms)that needs a more useful basis for the “time to come”. Current trends do not seem to offer a bright future.

    • Thank you! It was a story not a documentary. Why does everyone have to turn any movie that is based loosely or not on past events into propaganda. Movies are for entertainment, documentaries are more for education.

  11. It’s important to note that when President Carter allowed the deposed Shah to enter the U.S., Iranians remembered that when the Shah fled into exile in 1953, CIA agents working at the embassy had returned him to power.

    Thus in the fervor of late 1979, the US’s welcoming of the hated Shah seemed to confirm to Iranians what was suspected: the US was plotting against the revolution and was planning to replicate the 1953 coup. (In January 1979 President Carter did send a US general to Iran to determine, as one American official put it, “if the Iranian military had the stomach to attempt a coup and suppress the revolution.”

    The hostage taking was in part meant to preempt such a possibility. link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

    • Yes, one of the worst examples of historical distortion in the film is that it didn’t present the Iranian invasion of the Embassy as a specific response to Carter granting the hated Shah refuge in the US.

  12. Some good points, except this one: “Although the film begins with an info-dump that explains that the US screwed over Iran… It is tacked on. It does not intersect with the subsequent film in any significant way.” The climax of the film depends entirely– entirely– on this “tacked on” beginning. There’s room for interpretation, but I read that climax as the filmmaker’s acknowledgment of the legitimate grievances and desires of the Iranian people.

  13. I liked the scene where the guy hangs up the phone and decides to run across the airport to warn the guards at the gate. Then they do not have keys to the gates they are guarding so they have to run to the control tower. These stupid guys apparently did not know they could also make local calls. 350 Stooges!!! It is just a movie folks. Right after the revolution they came out with a movie about an Iranian guy who was beating his American wife in Tehran and how she ran away with her daughter. People used to ask me if that movie was a good depiction of the Iranian people and I would say only if you are willing to accept “Deliverance” as a good depiction of the Americans. Is there an Iranian guy who has beaten up his American wife? I am sure the answer is more than one and less than all.

  14. I am not sure I can entirely agree about “hapless diplomats.” One has to posit a diplomatic corps that is totally clueless about what the USG is actually doing, or completely careless as to the consequences for the people in the country where you live. Some of the people working in embassies are not State Department at all, of course. It is not surprising that the hostage takers would consider embassy staff to be complicit in the terror visited upon them by the Shah’s dictatorship. It was hardly a secret that the US and UK had orchestrated the overthrow of Mossadegh’s government at the behest of the oil companies. Individuals join the Foreign Service for many personal reasons, and many busy themselves with assistance to traveling US citizens or arranging for jazz concerts and the like. Some are dedicated careerists who are only interested in moving up the FS ladder and ultimately becoming ambassadors or Assistant Secretaries. If participating in the overthrow of a government is necessary for their career, they will do so. It’s hard to believe that anyone was posted to Teheran by directive, or that they did not have some inkling of the US history with Iran. But the Shah was our man, and we protected him to the end. President Carter’s professed concern about human rights in our foreign policy did not bring about any change in US policy regarding Iran and the repression of democracy there on behalf of western petroleum profits.

  15. The Central Intelligence Agency has had excellent connections in the American media.

    When Richard Helms held leadership roles in the Agency, his point man for public relations was E. Howard Hunt. Helms served as U.S. ambassador to Iran after he left the CIA and had a friendship with the Shah going back decades to when they attended collegetogether in Europe.

    Like “Zero Dark Thirty” this film tries to cast the CIA in a most positive light.

    The Iranian hostage crisis was repugnant to most moderate Iranians and led to the resignation of Mehdi Bazargan, who held a top role in the the post-Shah revolutionary government. Bazargan had been a confidante of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, whose government had been overthrown by the CIA in Operation Ajax.

    • “Like “Zero Dark Thirty” this film tries to cast the CIA in a most positive light.”

      Within the context of the film, that is the extraction of the six American Embassy officials from Iran, the CIA indeed acted in a positive light. The only thing that warrants as much or more acclaim would be the actions of the Canadian Ambassador in hiding and protecting the six American diplomats. For that act alone, the Canadians deserve our everlasting gratitude.

  16. “I know some of the former hostages, and deeply sympathize with their trauma. Nothing justifies what was done to them.”

    I guess my question would be: What could be considered a legitimate quid pro quo in response to the US key role in removing the democratically elected government in 1953 and imposing the Shah’s harsh reign? Given the horrors of the Shah’s reign, and its full support by the US, the hostage taking hardly rises to an “eye for an eye” level.

    The US is hyper devoted to the eye for an eye concept, and it’s often difficult to detect our loss of an eye.

    We bombed and invaded Grenada because Cuban construction workers were lengthening the island’s runway.

    We bombed and invaded Panama because it’s dictator (a prior friend) was allegedly involved in the drug trade.

    We bombed and invaded Afghanistan because it hosted al Qaida, but had no role in 9/11.

    We bombed and invaded Iraq, I guess because we could.

    While in Iraq we held about 25,000 Iraqi men in prison without charges.

    If we consider the hostage taking as payback, it is hardly significant compared to our own very strongly supported endeavors of that nature.

    • “We bombed and invaded Afghanistan because it hosted al Qaida, but had no role in 9/11.”

      By hosting Al-Qaeda and offering it terrorist training facilities, the Afghan government was as complicit in the attacks against the United States as if it had planned them itself. It certainly did have a major role in the September 11 terrorist attacks. to suggest otherwise is pure sophistry.

      • To follow your argument or agree with it would constitute another kind of logical fallacy, and an obscuring of the larger context and a maybe wiser view of “national interests” and that silly thing, “truth.”

        Which part of “Afghanistan” had and has that “major role,” again? Just what did “it” do that even starts to justify what “the US” did, has done and is doing there, to the point that our fearful Mr. Karzai wants “us” to stand down, and now, like with Vietnam and Iraq, “we” slinking away and hoping nobody notices that once again, it was not about “victory” or “success” or “protecting national interests” that nobody ever articulates what they are, but about several something-elses altogether?

        And by your logic, Castro should be bombing Miami and kicking in doors in Keokuk, since WE “hosted and offered terrorist training facilities to” a bunch of unfortunately incompetent Cuban ex-pats who, even with a lot of covert “US” help, were unable to restore a nice cozy kleptocracy with lots of Mob-ortunities. For just one small example. To claim justification, one ought to have done justice themselves…

        • “Which part of “Afghanistan” had and has that “major role,” again? Just what did “it” do that even starts to justify what “the US” did, has done and is doing there”

          Re-read my comment above, Mr. McPhee. You will find that the answer to your question, cited above, is in my original comment.

    • If it were only a matter of morality, you’d have a point. However, diplomatic immunity is part of the rules that make it possible for governments to communicate with each other, a system accreted painfully over centuries. Embassies have always been used for spying and chicanery, but kings put up with this because they needed to not be in total darkness about each other. The alternative would be a real state of nature, every kingdom out to destroy every other one all the time like in Mongol days.

      However, the problem you’re pointing out is that diplomacy operates on a fiction of equality between states. In the past, when technology limited their military reach, big empires either ate all their small neighbors or ran up against a big neighbor. So the problem of big powers screwing small powers tended to reach an equilibrium. Now you have a superpower, America, something unprecedented in its power, its reach, and relative to that its ignorance and indifference about the outside world. There is no countervailing power that can make the US behave sensibly.

      So the question is, why should anyone in the world respect diplomacy when the interstate system is so horribly unequal?

  17. The SAVAK had a storefront office in Chicago at 6320 N. Western Avenue, just south of the old Nortown Theater where I saw Forbidden Planet as a child. I first noticed this office when I returned to the neighborhood in 1977; I do not know when it opened, but it was not there in the 1960s. The windows were painted black with “Iranian Student Association” painted in crude white letters, but it was not the Iranian Students Association in the United States (ISAUS) or the Confederation of Iranian Students, National Union (CISNU), which were well known at the time: it was in fact a SAVAK office. The front door was usually padlocked, but by living nearby I learned to recognize one of the agents.

    These fellows terrorized the Iranians in Chicago’s Rogers Park, West Ridge and Edgewater neighborhoods, most of them students at Northwestern and Loyola Universities. Half of all Iranian college students studied abroad then, and there were many Iranian students here. The SAVAK would stalk, assault, and vandalize the property of anyone they identified as oppositional, which could be practically anyone since Mohammad Reza Pahlevi was loathed by most Iranians. The Chicago police would arrive an hour later, and they could never find a clue who the perpetrators might be: but if tires had been slashed and headlights smashed, sometimes they would write a hazardous vehicle ticket and call a tow truck. There would be a paragraph in The Rogers Park News, but rarely anything in the Sun-Times and never in the Tribune.

    I would like to thank Dr. Cole for his mini-review of Argo, a film I will probably miss. If I am going to see monsters from Hollywood’s collective id, I prefer the one on Altair IV.

  18. Who remembers the famous interview with Jessie Leaf, the CIA officer in Iran just before the revolution, wherein he confirmed the CIA’s connection to Savak? Reported by none other than Seymour Hersh

    link to msuweb.montclair.edu

  19. Nothing wrong in Juan’s narrative but it’s terribly besides the point. There’s nothing “Orientalist” about the film, which is simply an action thriller pegged to an actual event which took place in Iran. Does the CIA get too much credit and do the Canadians and/or Brits get short shrift? Maybe but so what? It’s a film.

    And whether the mob scenes are reflective of Iran circa 1979-80 is of borderline importance. Film makers and verisimilitude? When did that become the judging criteria we use? Something “based on a true story” isn’t necessarily a true story. It’s Hollywood, for Pete’s sake.

    The fact is that a mob invaded the US Embassy and held American diplomats captive. A plan was devised to extricate them and happily, operatives got a handful out of that hell. If some of the regime’s too tender feelings are disturbed for that portrayal, too damned bad.

  20. I went to this film with friends who, unlike me aren’t old enough to remember the events it is based on. I did point out what did happen, what didn’t happen, etc.

    Maybe it’s an indication of how little I expect from Hollywood now but I was pleasantly surprised that they did at least put a little historical context into the film with the introduction. Given the times we live in I was pretty much expecting the film to give no more background for what is going on than saying Iranians are inherently evil.

    For the most part it does what most Hollywood films do with history: make the Americans look better and more important, simplify and dumb things down and play with facts to make it more dramatic. It’s a real problem given that we have voice demonizing Iran and trying to gin up support for a war right now.

    Zero Dark 30 is an order of magnitude worse as it plays false with history in order to justify and champion the illegal and unethical action of torture.

  21. Thanks for this balanced review. It is very unfortunate that even in this day and age of instant information people are falling prey to misinformation and propaganda and continuing with mistrust.
    In my view US’s behavior was driven by its anti-communist worldview and Iran’s behavior in the late 70s was due to this history of being wronged by western powers (especially the US) So both sides acted with varying degree of rationality and self interest and conflict resulted.

    But now after more than 30 years it is time to move on and we have the moral obligation to be conciliatory being bigger in population, size and economy. Yet all you hear is stupid sabre rattling from morons like Lindsey Graham in senate.

  22. Addressing the movie’s refusal to confront the belief of Iranians that the seizure was just retribution for America’s past crimes there:

    I think what’s worst of all is that even if you spent 2 hours explaining to the average ignoramus what crimes we committed, he would still say the Iranian people have no right to punish America. Why?

    “Because it’s different when we do it.”

    In other words, we Americans dominate the world for its own good. Any crimes we committed to stop Communism are instantly justified, because ANY loss ANYWHERE to the Reds could have lost the ENTIRE planet! So sacrificing one, or a dozen, ordinary countries (Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.) to “improve our strategic position” was a regrettable necessity because we’re a special country and our enemies are special villians. The victims of our crimes are just small-minded, thinking only of their own petty justice when that might serve the cause of the greater evil we’re battling.

    And now the same is true of those villagers we’re bombing, because if we don’t some guys in caves might conquer the world for Allah!

  23. I just checked the DVD box for “Syriana”, and indeed George Clooney was one of the producers of both Argo and this movie, which takes a far darker view of America’s role in the world and has a more ambiguous story. “Syriana” was not a success. Any opinions on whether that was because it was less pro-American, or because it simply didn’t give the audience anyone it wanted to cheer for?

    But that’s the problem with Americans, isn’t it? We want clear heroes and villains, regardless of where we are on the political spectrum.

  24. “… but somehow American movie audiences insist that it all has to be about us.”

    Really?

  25. As mass-market entertainment, “Argo” isn’t that bad. It begins with the narrative about Mosaddeq — probably the first time many Americans will have heard of him — and it ends by giving Jimmy Carter (vilified and lampooned by the American Right) the last word. As an American mass-market product, and seen in American terms, “Argo” is OK. A more earnest and historically nuanced presentation of the story would probably not have found an audience outside of art houses.

      • I should add that I come at this as a university teacher in Canada. Something like “Argo” (or earlier, “Lawrence of Arabia”) provides an entree to a historical subject, and in the best circumstances opens up the opportunities for discussion and critique.

        Just like the discussion we’re having here, now.

        • There is no comparison between “Argo” and “Lawrence of Arabia”. The latter showed the beauty as well as what we in the West may see as the harshness of the dessert culture. It showed humane Arab leadership and ARAB cultural sensitivity to the ENGLISH (as Ali’s respect for Lawrence grew, he made dessert life as tolerable for Lawrence as possible). The British command was rightfully pictured as the scheming manipulators they were who sold the Arabs out. Although the most fully developed character was Lawrence, brilliantly played by O’Toole from sincere (though self-promoting) low level officer to blindsided megalomaniac, the key Arab principles (OK, yes, Alec Guiness was a stretch) were multidimensional individuals, smart, savvy and – for awhile at least – able to play the British for their own purposes nearly as well as the British played them.

  26. Matt Damon grew up next door to Howard Zinn. Matt has participated in companion works of “A people’s history of the United States”.
    A wide ranging interview with his friend Ben Affleck on his political views would be interesting.

  27. I like Lawrence of Arabia as a movie. As history, though, it has serious problems. First, in the movie Lawrence becomes the principal protagonist of the “Arab revolt.” Second, the famous scene set in Damascus where the assembled Arab chieftains have a falling out never happened. In fact, political differences within the Arab movement notwithstanding, the Arab nationalists assembled in Damascus (the “General Syrian Congress”) agreed to a set of principles that were not that much different from those adopted by Turkish nationalists at about the same time. So we can use the “Lawrence” movie to open up a discussion about these historical issues.

    • Thank you for response. My point was that compared to Argo and ZDT mostly negative portrayal, David Lean’s movie, while still Orientalist, is a breath of fresh air. It was also a better movie. I don’t take any of these movies as ‘truth’ and can’t figure out why others do. Agree, however, that the recent ones add to American xenophobia.

  28. Great write-up Professor Cole. Can’t agree with you more in regards to your “comic book” remark, the only thing I will add in defense of “Comic books” is that they have a three dimensional characters that are seldom nuances :)
    Argo’s mission was nothing but “self-glorification” of Americans, it was taken seriously, and it was purporting to be a historical event as it even got the First Lady involved, what a joke, and how sad for our country.
    President Jimmy Carter remembered the event very well, and I trust his memory more than the former Central Intelligence Agency operative who was evidently involved in the rescue. Jimmy Carter in his interview with Piers Morgan could not stop laughing at the twisted, conceited and the fanciful script.
    Unfortunately George Clooney the co-director of the movie is obsessed with Iran alas you would think he would at least educate himself on the topic, but historian he is not, he is just a pretty face and a blank slate.

  29. And right here is a good enough example of how the (US) media works in shaping your world view and distracting from the bigger/real issues.

    63 comments discussing the relative merits of a Hollywood film compared to 2 in response to a previous article about the death of a Palestinian in Israeli custody.

    If your biggest concern is whether or not you are getting your political & foreign policy history portrayed accurately in movies all I can say is you have much bigger problems.

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