Argo: a really bad “good” film (AWTWNS 14 January 2013)

The AWTWNS packet for the week of 14 January 2013 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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Argo: a really bad “good” film

14 January 2012. A World to Win News Service. The film Argo has been a big box office hit and a critical success, especially in the U.S. and UK. As the movie awards season begins, Hollywood film journalists gave it two Golden Globes, one as 2012’s best motion picture and another for Ben Affleck’s directing. It is short-listed for the upcoming UK Bafta awards and in the running for the Oscars in February.

It should be highly controversial, because it touches on a still-sensitive issue, the siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 by students supporting Ayatollah Khomeini following the Iranian revolution. That was a turning point in relations between the new Islamic regime and the U.S., and has been the focus of many arguments ever since. The fact that Argo has not sparked more widespread debate shows how much most mainstream media critics have been blind to – or agreed with – its implicit message.

The story is about six members of the American embassy crew in Tehran who manage to escape out the embassy back door as the students overrun it. They end up taking shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. The rest of the film is about the plan to get them safely out of the country, cooked up and carried out by the CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck), an expert in what he calls “exfiltration”.

After rejecting his superiors’ conventional and fatally flawed ideas for smuggling them out clandestinely, and watching the film Battle for the Planet of the Apes with his son, Mendez finally comes up with a stratagem. The six will be given false Canadian passports and leave Iran via the Tehran airport with a cover story that might work just because it’s too insane to seem invented. They are to pose as film makers now leaving after having come to Iran just a few days earlier to look for locations to shoot a (fake) science fiction film called Argo. The U.S. State Department gives the go-ahead.

Then he and his superiors contact John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood make-up artist who previously made disguises for the CIA, and through him, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a film producer. Both sign on enthusiastically. Chambers and Siegel set up a fake film studio and everything else necessary to support the cover story. Mendez flies to Turkey and from there to Tehran to provide the false identities to the Embassy staffers and put the scheme in effect.

The film’s core drama arises from the unexpected difficulties in carrying out this apparently straight-forward scheme – when Mendez goes to get permission for the film-scouting project from Iranian authorities; when the Americans, building their cover story by touring the city, run into angry protesters who surround their van; when they walk through the traditional bazaar and are attacked by hostile people (portrayed as a mob); and when they go to collect their airline tickets half an hour before their scheduled flight and find that the tickets have not been purchased because top U.S. officials have changed their mind about authorizing the plan.

The drama begins to peak when they try to go through passport control at the airport. After passing through two checkpoints, at the final one they come across a Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) who doubts their story and goes so far as to call the fake studio in California to verify it. Then things get really rough.

Argo claims to be “based on a true declassified story”. However, as many commentators have pointed out, referring to the real-life Mendez’s book about what happened, some key scenes, especially those that add excitement, never really took place. It may be justified to change some secondary features of a historical account to make it more thrilling, attractive or watch-able. But still, a film that calls itself based on a true story should reflect reality in an overall sense and not turn the larger reality upside down.

Instead, the film seems to deliberately use the added details to rewrite the whole history of the event. Let’s put it this way: this film tries to rewrite history according to the way the CIA would like everyone to see it.

The film starts with a brief background narration about how the CIA and the British helped overthrow the government of the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and reinstalled the regime of the Shah, who had been forced to leave the country by a mass uprising.

But then the film completely forgets about this introductory narration and the texture of the rest of the film is completely alien to it.

The film fails to give a real picture of the feeling and mood of the masses of Iranian people during the time after the 1979 revolution when the fleeing Shah was granted refuge by the U.S.

The coup that made the Shah a client of U.S. imperialism caused a tremendous amount of misery and suffering for the Iranian people. The U.S. brought a brutal regime back to power and kept it in power for another 25 years.

The November 1979 embassy siege is a complicated issue. The people were outraged by what the U.S. had done to Iran. Under the Shah and his torturers, the economy and society were increasingly reorganized in the interests of American and other imperialist capital. They were right to be angry at the U.S. and its nest of spies and operatives at the embassy that played a key role in America’s grip on the country.

There were complex reasons behind the actual takeover of the embassy and Khomeini’s support for it, including a power struggle within the regime and the contention between the imperialists on a world scale. The Islamic Republic had its own agenda for supporting the occupation and making sure it continued until the regime’s objectives were achieved.

The Islamic regime that took the control of the Iranian people’s revolution was never the symbol of the Iranian revolution but on the contrary the symbol of betrayal of the revolution. They did everything to abort and stop the revolution. The increasing tension and contradiction between the Iranian people and the Islamic regime that started with the oppression of women and national minorities led to the execution of tens of thousands of communists and revolutionaries. The decades since have seen repeated outbreaks of struggle against the regime. Argo treats the regime and the people as indistinguishable. The people’s anger at the U.S. is portrayed as religious fanaticism or just following the regime.

As for the film’s opening three minutes of narration about the role of the U.S. and the British, this is not so much an admission of guilt as a necessary bow to the obvious in order to treat this guilt as a one-off item from the distant past.

Argo leaves audiences with the impression that maybe the U.S. made mistakes, but the Iranian people just became unreasonable about it. All the Iranians in it are insane and stupid, with the exception of the Canadian ambassador’s maid, Sahar. Shouldn’t that be enough to tip people off that there’s something deeply wrong about this film?

The least that can be said is that there is a huge contradiction between what the film says at the beginning and the way the masses of people are depicted.

The thrills that many critics consider the film’s strong point are both clichéd and achieved at the expense of distorting reality. The excitement builds when the Americans all pile into a van to get to airport quickly before the Iranian regime forces arrive, and the motor doesn’t start. How many times have we seen this before? Then there is the peril in getting through the last passport control, and even worse clichés at the end that never really happened. In real life the plan went off smoothly.

In fact the film was loaded with artificial and unreal scenes, not only in its dramatic situations but even worse when it comes to dealing with Iranians. This is not just the result of unfamiliarity with Iranians, although it is remarkable that they could only find one Iranian actor to play a speaking role, despite the large cast. The problem arises from what the film implicitly says about the Iranian people. Their blind fanaticism is both the main plot device and, in a way, the film’s message.

It is certain that the filmmakers did not intend to just make an exciting film. Nor did they mean to present an accurate historical account. In fact, the film is meant to deliver a very strong political message, and a slight bow to history and a huge dose of excitement are the means to do so. Maybe Argo is not a Rambo, but it contains some important elements of Rambo – or may be it is the way that George Clooney and Ben Affleck would make a Rambo movie.

A nice, honest CIA agent heroically saves his countrymen and women who have been trapped among an ignorant, stupid and fanatical population. The embassy staffers are sometimes annoying, but basically decent because, after all, they’re Americans. All that’s missing is for some nice Iranian girl to fall in love with the hero. The exaltation of ever-victorious CIA agents and operations in a third world country and an extremely dehumanizing view of the masses of people of such countries are main characteristics of such films.

To be fair, there is another important difference – the difference between a Rambo of Republicans and the Rambo of Democrats. At one point in the film when Mendez is told that the whole operation is cancelled so as not to interfere with a military operation to rescue the hostages, he forces his superiors to regain the authorization for the mission. Some refer to this point to show that the position of the film generally is one of opposition to military solutions. And some argue that this is why Affleck and Clooney, who opposed the invasion of Iraq, made this film: to put forward a “soft power” non-violent solution to the conflict between the Islamic Republic and the U.S. The film could be understood as saying the CIA was heavy-handed when it overthrew Mossadegh, with bad long term results for the U.S., and clever with good results in getting the six embassy staffers out.

But this doesn’t make much difference in the nature of the film. Whatever the wishes of the film makers may be, in the end it strengthens the sentiment that the U.S. must use force against Iran, whether through international bullying and economic violence against the masses of people represented by stronger sanctions (presumably this is the “clever” solution), or a military action that such sanctions might prepare.

Most of all, the film reverses right and wrong. The Islamic Republic is a reactionary regime that needs to be overthrown by the Iranian people, but the U.S.’s opposition to that regime is based on the same economic and political interests behind engineering the overthrow of Mossadegh and its decades-long support for the Shah, not to mention the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and countless other outrages before and since. Such violence is not a mistake – these means are determined by the ends they serve. These crimes are driven by the need of imperialist capital to squeeze the life out of the world’s people by exploitation, and the competition between the U.S. and other imperialist powers over that wealth and global dominance.

That’s why the CIA exists. Sure, Argo’s Mendez is a deeply caring person (we know he suffers inner conflicts because he drinks a lot), and he’s a bit of a maverick (not nearly as much as Rambo), but he personifies what is indisputably the world’s most despised organization. The characters played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin are terrifically “in your face” in their defiance of convention and hypocritical good manners, but then so was Arnold Schwartznegger’s Terminator in his day, and again, so was Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo. That’s one reason they were able to fool people who should have known better than to sympathize with people whose real mission is American global dominance. Goodman and Arkin play the kind of “assets” that enable the CIA to do its dirty work. Good acting doesn’t make the result better – it makes this film’s poisonous impact all the worse.

Even its undeniable ability to hold audiences’ attention is in the service of a bad cause – audiences get so caught up in the excitement that they forget to think, swallowing reactionary political clichés along with the reassuringly familiar plot devices.

Some British and Continental reviewers who found Argo acceptable have contrasted it to Zero Dark Thirty, which makes them uneasy because of its unapologetic approval of torture. But this is a hypocritical distinction. The two films may have been made to appeal to different sensibilities, but they are patriotic hymns to the CIA sung in different keys.

It’s a sign of the mood among so many Obama supporters that people who consider themselves liberals, and who have taken good stands and made some progressive films in the past, can present the CIA as a force for good, or at least as no more deeply evil than the U.S. Postal Service.

Is it really true, as this film would make audiences believe, that the Iranian people and everyone else have to choose between aiding the Islamic regime or aiding the CIA? That just gives the U.S. an excuse to intervene even more in Iran and helps prepare U.S. public opinion for more and bigger crimes. And it also strengthens the hand of the Islamist forces who seek to legitimize and strengthen themselves with exactly the same logic.

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