On the spectrum of recent U.S. films about intense life-and-death conflicts between Persians and "our guys', the most propagandistic, militaristic, and reactionary position is occupied by the reprehensible live-action cartoon 300. You could call this the "Kill Them All" position. On the opposite end of that spectrum, the most humanistic, egalitarian, and psychologically insightful position is occupied by the exquisite drama The House of Sand and Fog -- a chamber piece that shows how misunderstandings can spiral tragically out of control. You might call this the "Human Decency" position.
Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes lies the new movie Argo, directed by Ben Affleck for Smokehouse Pictures, the production company owned by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Argo is about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, and how the CIA came up with an unlikely rescue plan for six of the Americans hiding outside of the embassy: they would pretend to make a sci-fi movie. The premise has enormous potential, and it's easy to see why it would be attractive to Hollywood. Unfortunately, the finished product is nowhere near the "Human Decency" end of the spectrum. I think its liberal makers would be surprised and actually ashamed if they realized how much more it leans towards 300.
There is no doubt that Argo is a very ambitious film. It wants to be life-and-death serious, funny, and exciting all at once, and to join historical accuracy with breathless pacing, jokey put-downs of Hollywood, and an absurdist scheme at the story's core. As Affleck confided in an interview, it is also ambitious in its delicate tonal balance. It aims to be a taut suspense thriller that also provides some history of the strained relations between the U.S. and Iran, and it tries to re-create the 1970's vibe without being too cheesy or campy. All the while, of course, it is designed to be commercial, with a budget of $44 million -- the L.A. Times alleges that this makes it "one of the season's more daring gambles, the kind of movie most studios stopped making in the last decade."
At the same time, it seems to want to leave us with the takeaway that even in a nightmarish scenario, bitter differences can be resolved without bombing anyone. (At the premiere, the audience applauded President Carter's voiceover explaining that in the end we got all the hostages out, and we did it peacefully). The movie does show that deciding against a bloodbath can take courage and foresight. And perhaps this is what Affleck, Clooney, and Heslov believe made the movie the right thing to do right now -- even at the risk of stoking the fires of warmongers here at home in 2012, by raising the spectre of Americans imperiled by Iran.
Well, it achieves all those goals in spades, and I applaud its ambitions and its aplomb. But I wish it was considerably more ambitious.
Argo catapults between, as Affleck put it to the L.A. Times, "three different themes and three different worlds: the CIA, Hollywood, and the Iran tensions." Affleck's quote is informative: the third theme or world that he organized the film around was "Iran tensions', not Iran itself. Not even the Iranian revolution. The subject is the threat to Americans. Argo is about the plight of 6 Americans hiding out in Tehran after the embassy is seized, and it cuts away only to strategic debates at CIA headquarters as agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) struggles against bureaucratic inertia, or to comic relief scenes in Hollywood between John Goodman and Alan Arkin. No matter where our wheels touch down, it's Americans who matter. This is a movie that views Iran in the 1970s from the living-room where the 6 are hiding -- and the blinds are closed.
The cover story being used to try to smuggle the 6 hideaways out of Tehran is that they are location-scouting for a movie, so the day before they are to escape, they go out in public to make their aliases more believable. Do we, on the pretend location scout, finally see some of Tehran's cultural landmarks? Do we get a sense of an ancient civilization and a sophisticated culture? Do we have any panoramas of people going about their business in the complexity of a metropolitan city? No, because the Americans' expedition is just as claustrophobic as the scenes in their lair -- Affleck crowds them into a van, squeezes the van in a vice as they are swarmed by furious protesters, and then jostles them around in a packed bazaar that turns hostile. Of course, he's doing this deliberately for the tension it creates in them and in us. But throughout the film, the Iran we see in the news clips and the Iran we see dramatized are all on the same superficial level: incomprehensible, out-of-control hordes with nary an individual or rational thought expressed.
After a brief (albeit important) animated storyboard introduction that contextualizes the events of 1979 with some history, it is the storming of the American embassy which begins both the film proper and our exposure to the Iranian revolution. You wouldn't know from this film that, despite years of persecution during Iran's westernized government, the communist Tudeh Party was also out organizing workers' strikes during the turmoil of the Shah Pahlavi's overthrow. The movie does stress that the U.S. helped overthrow the democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mossaddeq in 1953 because he dared to nationalize Iran's oil, and then backed the Shah and his use of the notorious SAVAK secret police to kidnap and torture the Shah's opponents. These are obviously excellent points to make. But Argo glosses over the diversity of opinion in Iran and the intellectual ferment before the theocratic lockdown, making the culture look exactly the way an insular American public has come to believe all Islamic countries look. The film offers only scant insight into how the Islamists came to win over a country that had previously been quite secular and sophisticated.
Very, very few Iranian characters are individualized in Argo, and most of the time when we see Iranians on-screen, their words are not translated for us. Take Farshad Farahat's character. He is an officer in the Revolutionary Guards, one of the final terrifying obstacles the escaping protagonists must face at the airport. Farahat tries not to play stupid or cartoonish like so many ethnic villains in Hollywood movies, but most of the little he has been given to say is un-translated, so Farahat has to do almost all of the work with his eyes. The movie apparently never intended much more for him: his character's name is merely "Azzizi Checkpoint #3".
Another Persian, Reza (Omid Abtahi), makes an appearance in the marketplace in Tehran. His defining characteristic is whether the Americans can trust him. When he is friendly, his words are translated. When an altercation breaks out, there are no subtitles.
And even the point of the jokey snippet of dialogue that is translated seems to be to mock his idea of a Hollywood movie even more than Argo sends up the fake sci-fi B-movie. This dialogue emphasizes his cultural Other-ness, making him sound as sexist and out-of-touch as a Sacha Baron Cohen creation.
Nowhere, in a caper that exists in part to celebrate movie magic, is it mentioned that Iran has its own cinematic tradition -- though if the Argo creative team had ever seen the award-winning 1992 tribute film Once Upon a Time, Cinema they would have seen clips from old Iranian movies dating all the way back to the silent era. By the time Argo is set, a number of Iranian film festivals had been in existence several years, including the Tehran International Film Festival 'to promote the art of Cinema that expresses humanitarian values and promotes understanding and exchange of ideas between nations'. And there were already several film and television schools in Iran, including a decade-old government-financed School of Television and Cinema which students attended for free. 480 feature films were made in Iran between 1966 and 1973; filmmakers, like other Iranian artists and intellectuals, had plenty to call attention to under the Shah's oppressive regime. In fact, the Iranian New Wave, which launched in 1969, should have been known to Argo's Foreign Service professionals who had spent their leisure time in Tehran; with filmmakers as respected as Dariush Mehrjui and Abbas Kiarostami already active. By the late seventies, movies were already the key form of mass entertainment in the country. Yet Affleck has the Revolutionary Guards gawking and giggling over the storyboards and poster for the fake Hollywood movie like awe-struck children.
The most important Iranian character in the film is the young and beautiful Sahar (Sheila Vand), the housekeeper to the Canadian ambassador and his wife who secretly harbor the 6 American refugees. But calling her the most important Iranian character is not saying much -- and neither is Sahar. Over a handful of scenes she may have a grand total of 3 lines. In this case they are translated, because they are relevant to the plot. Her character, however, is defined by her attitude toward the Americans. She also may be the only kind of Iranian the movie is interested in individuating because she is separated from her society, ensconced in a Western household.
Sahar also reflects a class differential that accompanies the chasm between nations in Argo. Apart from a smooth-talking, sinister heavy Ali Khalkali (Ali Saam) who presides over a cultural portfolio in the new government, we see only guards, soldiers, merchants, a guide, a domestic worker, and unspecified mobs in the street. By contrast, the American characters are either professionals or have highly skilled jobs: CIA agents, State Dept. officials, members of the Foreign Service, and Hollywood above-the-line talent or artisans. Thus the overall picture of Argo's Iranian characters as second-class is exemplified even through their occupations. Note that this is very much at odds with the value system Iranian-Americans often express, cherishing educational accomplishments and taking great pride in professional status.
In a somewhat similar vein, Argo does not make it clear that the storming of the embassy was carried out by militant students -- and only a few years after a wave of occupations in the U.S., albeit usually considerably more non-violent, by students and militants. We absorb only an impression of an amorphous, frenzied mob. By contrast, U.S. news media corporations covering the 2011 Green Revolution in Iran made sure we knew about the youth component in that movement -- because they wanted to help American viewers identify with the protesters, and to make them seem rational.
Yet one would think that discussions in Argo among the students suddenly in direct control over so many people's lives would have held some dramatic potential. The Tehran students' views on the internal conditions within the U.S. -- the fact that they released some hostages early who were female or people of color because, they claimed, these people were oppressed by the American system -- would certainly have suggested that Iran contained thinking beings. But we never go behind-the-scenes at this revolution. (Instead, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio's tempering historical introduction is soon outweighed by the visceral power of mobs storming walls, chador-clad women toting rifles, and banshees screaming into news cameras.) To allow a little insight wouldn't mean Argo would be condoning the revolution or hostage-taking. After all, in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens empathized with the suffering that led to the French revolution, but he still made its horror manifest. And he did it all in the service of a breathtakingly exciting escape story, not unlike Argo.
But there's also the fact that Argo suggests and circles around the idea that the whole crisis was blowback against CIA covert ops. It might have been appropriate for somebody on the American side to feel conflicted about what they had wrought. Affleck portrays a real CIA agent, lead character Tony Mendez, who gets people out of tough places; he is even said to have helped get some of "the Shah's people" out. But he is an uncompromised hero -- his struggle is less about ethical questions than about strategy, and (as the Republicans like to say) "resolve.' Ironically, Affleck had more of an internal dilemma in the last movie he directed, the bank heist caper The Town. And in the one before that, Gone Baby Gone, Ben's brother Casey faced very troubling moral choices. Yet those Boston thrillers were about garden-variety criminals and detectives, and their moral quandaries involved only a couple of people. Why do the decades of Cold War schemes of the CIA, carried out on a mass scale beyond democratic oversight and frequently subverting democracy abroad, occasion so much less gravitas?
Now, these liberal filmmakers might object that an introspective CIA tragedy has already been made (The Good Shepherd, starring Affleck's friend Matt Damon), and so has a bumbling CIA farce (Burn After Reading, featuring Clooney). They could well ask "what do you want from us?", and point out that Argo actually calls the CIA the biggest terrorist organization in the world. Yes, but that designation is made, and only in passing, by America's official enemy, and as Noam Chomsky would explain, that's how the media prevents accusations from hitting home.
Clooney, Heslov, and Affleck might point out that the movie does stipulate why Iranians were angry at the U.S. Yes but, again, as media critics would attest, if you bury a story deep inside the newspaper, readers will assume it is of little importance: the well-intentioned seeds that Argo plants to explain "why they hated us" in 1979 are stomped on by the boots of the maniacal hordes. (Affleck also shows archival footage of Americans throwing tantrums in the streets and calling for Iranian blood, but they're not directly terrorizing anybody at the time; the Iranians are.)
The problem is that viewers who don't already know their Chomsky or William Blum aren't going to walk out of the film muttering "gee, it's more complicated than I thought." Instead, they'll leave with their fears and prejudices reaffirmed: that Middle Easterners create terror, that Americans must be the world's policemen, and that Iranians cannot be trusted because they hate America.
It could be argued that Argo is not meant to be a leftist political tract or a dour history lecture but a fun spy thriller, which is how it got financed in the first place. I realize that many of my concerns are about elements that actually work resoundingly well in purely cinematic terms -- and maybe Affleck was so focused on pacing, tension, drama, and excitement, all of which are his job, after all, that the other psychological effects he was creating didn't even occur to him. I admit I have no idea if the changes I'd like would have made it a better movie; perhaps my way would have been the boring way. It is certainly extremely entertaining as it is: crisply and intelligently directed, perfectly-cast as Affleck's films always are, witty, moving, absorbing, and nail-bitingly intense. If politics and humanitarian concerns didn't matter, it could be called a terrific movie.
Farshad Farahat, the Iranian-American actor who plays "Azzizi Checkpoint #3", probably appreciates that the makers of Argo were not consciously on the war path like the author of 300, Frank Miller was. (Slate critic Dana Stevens wrote that if 300 "had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war." Some fans might not want to think 300 has this agenda, but Miller made the conclusion unavoidable when he told NPR: "It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western World is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants... For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we're up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent.")
Long before his experience in Argo, Farahat wrote a guest essay for the L.A. Times about 300. It shows a glimpse of what it must be like to come from a culture that is so relentlessly demonized, and I suspect that part of what comes with that experience is appreciating differences in degree in how deeply a cultural artifact dips into the swamp of prejudice.
The triumvirate behind Argo have a track record that shows their concerns for social justice. As an activist, Clooney has worked for years against the genocide in Darfur. He also produced and starred in the searing ensemble drama about the politics of oil in the Middle East, Syriana, and helped get the anti-war actioner Three Kings made. Heslov co-wrote the script for the film Clooney directed about the media and Cold War paranoia, Good Night, and Good Luck, and he directed a Clooney-starrer that gleefully subverted the military-industrial-intelligence complex, The Men Who Stare at Goats. Meanwhile, Affleck and his buddy Damon tried for years to get their old pal Howard Zinn's groundbreaking tome A People's History of the United States made into a miniseries. (A concert performance special of Zinn's work did air on History Channel before he passed away.)
We are certainly fortunate that the inviting premise of Argo did not end up in the hands of more jingoistic and warmongering directors or producers, like William Friedkin (Rules of Engagement) or Jerry Bruckheimer (Black Hawk Down). As I said, on the continuum of messaging in Hollywood movies on this general subject, Argo falls in the middle.
But despite their credentials and beliefs, Affleck, Clooney and Heslov have certainly not brought Argo anywhere close to The House of Sand and Fog. Trita Parsi, reviewing the latter film for the National Iranian American Council, deemed it "one of Hollywood's first refined and sophisticated portrayals of Iranians and Iranian Americans... a step in the right direction for Hollywood; away from its simplistic, Manichean perspective and towards a polished outlook with a focus on the essence of the individual". Argo almost completely ignores individual Iranians; its portrait of an entire culture is neither refined nor sophisticated; and it does reinforce a simplistic, Manichean perspective.
That may not have been the filmmakers' intentions at all -- and as I've mentioned, they did have a lot on their plate, since Argo is a very ambitious film, with plenty of inherent difficulties just trying to get the normal filmmaking aspects right. But politics and humanitarian concerns do matter. Does the American public really need another movie that tells us to be afraid of Middle Easterners? Does a movie that makes the action sequences flashy and exciting but obscures the hard work of diplomacy (which ultimately got far more hostages out than this "caper' did) benefit our national psyche? Is it healthy for us to hold up images of Cold War CIA agents as selfless do-gooders? And when Iran is constantly lied about by politicians and media pundits, and there's a very real possibility that Israel or the U.S. could attack Iran militarily, is this movie going to help or is it going to harm?
I'm not sure of the world views of Chris Terrio, who is making his feature film writing debut here. But in his script, Affleck's character points out to a roomful of CIA agents that in winter there is snow in Iran -- thus shaming them for their ignorance of basic facts about the country. (Ignorance some of our media still have to this day.) Albert Einstein said that "Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act." I think this filmmaking team does know. Why should their smart and entertaining film have more of a conscience than others in Hollywood have? Because they are an extremely intelligent, perceptive, and talented bunch, and for those to whom much is given, of them much is required.
Anyone who sees Argo should make sure they wash it down with an antidote: an Iranian film which came out on DVD this fall and which counteracts all the negative influences of Argo. To say that Asghar Farhadi's film A Separation is highly acclaimed is an understatement. The movie won the the 2011 Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear International Jury prize; the Oscar, Golden Globe, Independent Spirit, Critics Choice, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics (NSFC), Online Film Critics Society, Chicago Film Critics, London Critics Circle (ALFS), and France's Cesar awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Its direction was lauded at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran, the International Film Festival of India, the Asian Film Awards, and the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film; its screenplay garnered an Oscar nomination and took home trophies from the NSFC, ALFS, L.A. Film Critics, the Durban Film Festival and the Fajr; and its cast received prizes from Fajr, Berlin, and London. And so forth.
Like Affleck's film, A Separation has conflicts between people spiraling out of control. But Argo wraps things up in a bow, since the Americans all got home to read bedtime stories to their kids -- we're not to consider that the next eight years turned into a devastating war between Iraq and Iran, covertly fueled by the U.S. (in violation of U.N. Security Resolution 522). There is no closure in A Separation, however; no right solution.
Farhadi's screenplay shows how separations develop between people -- and while Argo just accepts them, A Separation laments them. The title refers to the first, and central separation, the physical one between Nader and Simin, a husband and wife (beautifully played by Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami). If the film had focused only on that it still would have had a Kramer vs. Kramer-like pathos, since it is clear that 11-year old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) loves both of her parents, even when she is mad at her mother. But it also deals with the separation between the genders, one that is exacerbated by religious doctrines and traditions: Razieh, a housekeeper/caregiver, is hired to watch over Nader's elderly father, and she frets a great deal that it is improper for her to be alone with a man. The film also deals with the separation between the classes, and how lack of money means lack of options, fueling a family's sense of desperation and mistreatment. And there is the rift of distrust that grows between the two couples, the employers and their employee -- suspicions of elder abuse and theft on one side; accusations of physical assault leading to miscarriage on the other. Finally, there are gulfs between the couples based on religious and cultural differences: Simin and Nader follow the laws but they have no enthusiasm for it. Simin is a more liberated kind of Iranian woman, she is studying to be a teacher, she tries to get her daughter out of Iran, she instigates the separation from Nader, and though she has to wear the head-scarf by law, she is one of many Iranian women who dresses to express personal freedom as much as she can. By contrast, Razieh (in a deeply felt performance by Sareh Bayat) wears the plain, long, black chador, is careful to consult religious strictures at every turn, worries a lot, and is deferential to her husband. The lower-income couple even questions the more affluent couple's belief in God, since they are clearly not as pious.
Though both have a suspense thriller feel, the biggest difference between Affleck's film and Farhadi's is that A Separation does not unfold the way we might expect. The plotting is so expertly carried out that it keeps us guessing all the way through -- the mystery expands with emotional and philosophical revelations that continually surprise and move, and we are amazed at how differently we have come to see the characters. Ultimately, instead of uncovering murderers, A Separation uncovers human nature. Though we think we've discovered domestic abuse by one of the husbands, it turns out there are no villains.
Each family is chiefly concerned with the welfare of their daughter -- it's clearly a patriarchal society, but the film has a great deal of empathy towards women and girls. It elevates the tender or feminine side of men, too: Nader is close with Termeh, they race each other up the stairs and work on her homework together. He is also a sweet caregiver to his glassy-eyed father, who is stricken with Alzheimer's. In fact, it is his loyalty to his father, who cannot be moved from their apartment, that makes him unwilling to leave Iran -- and it is that refusal which causes his wife to file for separation. A Separation is a wise and subtle tragedy full of impossible choices.
One of the themes seems to be how easy it is for people to harm each other, even without malevolent intent. The housekeeper's young daughter is left unsupervised with the old man, and she plays with the dial on his oxygen pump (she's too young to realize what she's doing). Like many Iranian films, A Separation stems from a simple story and ordinary situations, yet leads to intense sturm und drang. The takeaway of the film, perhaps, is how unnecessary it all is. Even in the midst of the feud, pre-pubescent Termeh naturally starts playing with Razieh's small child out in the yard. The children would be friends if only the two families weren't pressing charges against each other.
Political Vaudeville (or is it Hallowe'en?)
It is election season, and a recent election event shows how important it really is for films to avoid the trends of political misinformation. Though Arkin and Goodman are a great comedic duo in Argo, they've got nothing on the vaudeville act of Berman and Sherman.
Because of redistricting and the new "top-two" primary rule in California's elections, Berman and Sherman, currently both Democratic members of Congress, are now competing in the general election to represent the 30th district, a seat currently held by Rep. Brad Sherman -- up until now, Rep. Howard Berman's seat had been in the 28th district. During a debate at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley on Oct. 11th, the duo spent most of an increasingly heated hour calling each other liars and other epithets. It all came to an explosive climax when they stood almost nose-to-nose and seemed about to wrestle. Sherman aggressively gripped Berman's shoulder and challenged him "You want to get into this?", causing pandemonium to break out in the packed hall and an intervention from the Sheriff.
And yet, despite their bitter animosity and repeated attempts to show how different they were from each other, they were in total lockstep on one thing: Iran.
Both jumped up to swear how dangerous they consider the Iranian regime to be, to warn that it could give a nuclear bomb to terrorists, and to aver how important it is for the U.S. to stop Iran's "nuclear program". Their only dispute on the issue was over which one of them had a more aggressive record in pursuing sanctions against Iran.
It is very sad to see such Orwellian groupthink being ladled out at an institution of higher learning. Most of the crowd loved both Berman and Sherman talking tough about Iran, and seemed blissfully unaware that there's no evidence that Iran is actually working on a nuclear weapon, according to both U.S. intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The students were apparently also unaware (though one would think Sherman or Berman would have been briefed) that Iran's right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is guaranteed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear power, though it may be undesirable from an environmental safety standpoint, is supposed to be the reward for signatories to the NPT vowing to abstain from nuclear weapons. Instead, U.S. policy tends to make a mockery of the NPT, since we side with countries who don't sign and actually obtain nuclear weapons -- if they are Israel or India, say. We even help India with its nuclear energy needs, though it's not supposed to enjoy that privilege.
None of this came up in the Sherman/Berman boxing match, even though Berman made a point of excusing his vote in favor of the Iraq War by asserting that, at the time, he believed Iraq had WMDs. Yes, and perhaps the reason you believed that was because politicians lied about Iraq's WMDs. Are we really going to do it all over again? In the immortal words of George W. Bush: "Fool me once, shame on ... shame on you. Fool me -- a fool can't get fooled again." A nice sentiment, but he got even that wrong. The WMD accusations against Iran sound an awful lot like Iraq Redux; apparently plenty of people can get fooled again.
Argo is not much help in this situation. However, if you want to help prevent military action against Iran, try spreading some wisdom by sharing a copy of A Separation with people you know.