Movies

Argo – the wrong message

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Ahhhh go F*** yourself if you think Ben Aflleck’s new movie Argo is a great worthy 70s style political thriller. Because it is not. It is a very tense, entertaining and well made movie. But politically, it is simply wrong.

The story is set against the backdrop of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the take over of the US embassy in Tehran. Six “ordinary” American civil servants escape to the Canadian embassy. But before they are discovered and mistaken for spies, CIA agent Affleck must hatch a rescue plan.

This takes the shape of creating a fake Hollywood sci fi movie called Argo and creating the ruse that the six refugees are the Canadian film crew scouting for locations in revolutionary Tehran.

A bizarre and incredulous plot survives plausibility due to the fact it is supposedly very much based on a true incident. And the film’s execution, mixing political thriller with Hollywood parody, works surprisingly well.

There are extremely good scenes: the well staged attack on the embassy; the Hollywood section benefiting from the ever excellent Alan Arkin as the self deprecating Hollywood mogul; and the edge of your seat final act.

The late 70s period is meticulously recreated too and the movie almost pulls off a ruse itself in looking so much like the giants of the 70s political thriller – All the Presidents Men, The Parallax View, Capricorn One etc – that it is easy to be fooled into thinking it is, like these, intelligent.

But in those films the enemy was America. A corrupt, faceless, power hungry America messing fatally with ordinary people seeking truth. This was Hollywood really challenging its home turf with brave often dark conclusions.

Argo however, catastrophically presents us with a predictable Middle Eastern enemy. An Iran almost only consisting of Islamist extremists intent on medieval barbarism. Yes there is the odd scene of “ordinary” Iranians, but they are fleeting, and the non violent Iranians are presented only as people seeking US visas or being tortured or murdered.

There is one exception in the form of Sarah, the Canadian Ambassador’s Iranian housekeeper. Perhaps the most interesting character in the movie she faces real choices and ambiguous loyalties with potentially disastrous consequences. We quietly learn in one of the all too few criticisms of western ignorance that she is really called Sahar. But alas the character is only in about three scenes and begs to be far further developed.

From a political point of view the film opens promisingly. The backstory is told with comic book graphics (reminiscent of the superb Persepolis) and documentary footage. A voice over explains that the 1979 revolution (and therefore subsequent Iranian issues) were partly in response to the 1953 US and British orchestrated coup. This saw Iran’s democratically elected secular leader ousted and replaced by 20 years of tyrannical rule.

But regarding insights into western culpability in the consequences of their meddling, that unfortunately, is about it. After this the film concentrates fully on the central story of the rescue of the six Americans camped out in the Canadian embassy.

And Iran (which in Hollywood blockbuster parlance might as well stand for all the Middle East and Islam) is presented as the dangerous exotic, the other, where bad things happen and from where innocent ordinary American folk must be rescued (perhaps these ones did, but is there really not a more interesting nuanced and larger story to tell than this?).

The overall effect is to present the Americans as heroes. Even the self parodying Hollywood scenes, seem to finally conclude what great selfless citizens you can find there and how the power of film saves lives!

With the current worsening of relations between the west and Iran, this seems like an odd time to bring this film out. And ultimately, despite its qualities, doesn’t this type of clichéd, predictable positioning of the Middle East as the enemy serve to reinforce extremely uncomfortable and dangerous stereotypes?

An entertaining movie no doubt. And definitely more thought provoking than your average mainstream blockbuster. But ultimately that’s all it is, a blockbuster, with stupid and dangerous politics at its core.

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