How Argo Distorts History

In Hollywood Impressionism I said, “In countless ways, in countless films, Hollywood promotes its worldview and, for the last thirty years, that has meant portraying our country in a critical, damaging light. … Conservatives and Republicans bear the brunt of Hollywood blame…” Argo is a compelling drama that tells the heroic story of the CIA operative who masterminded the escape of six American diplomats from the Canadian embassy that harbored them in 1979 Revolutionary Iran. But Argo is no exception.

Argo‘s imagistic portrayal of our country is designed to pull us in a certain direction. Because Hollywood’s method is impressionistic, I will paraphrase and provide general examples of my argument. (I ask that those who provided historical information about the rescue effort itself on my previous blog please chime in here.)

The opening sequence gives a history of pre-revolutionary Iran with eye-catching images and a woman’s voice telling the story. It dramatizes America’s association with the oppressive regime of Shah Pahlavi, and strongly implies that American support for the Shah caused the 1979 revolution. It reminds us that the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mosaddegh was orchestrated by the British and the CIA. Focusing on the coup is fine, but Argo idealizes Mosaddegh, declaring that by nationalizing Iranian oil he gave the oilfields “back to the Iranian people.” It then demonizes the Shah, telling us “the people starved” and he “tortured all the people” – exaggerations to say the least. The Shah and his secret police (SAVAK) deserved to go, but the story didn’t need embellishing.

Again and again, the movie hammers the theme: The revolution and hostage crisis were caused by American support for the Shah and his atrocity-committing regime. The action is often interrupted with the depiction of a female Iranian revolutionary stating into a microphone, in calm and reasonable tone, that the revolution and crisis are the result of the Shah’s human rights abuses, America’s support of him, and America’s willingness to provide him asylum (for cancer treatment in the U.S.) Although the film shows revolutionary violence on the Iranian streets, the film doesn’t allow us to hear what the Revolutionaries were actually chanting: “Death to America!,” “Islam, Islam, Khomeini We Will Follow You!,” etc.  In emphasizing the justice of the cause and downplaying the revolution’s hate-filled violence, the film comes close to saying the end justifies the means.

It seems director/lead actor Ben Affleck felt the need to compensate for making (gasp!) a CIA operative look good. To compensate further, he depicted Texas-ugly-Americans screaming anti-Iranian epithets and beating Iranian-Americans.

Argo misses its own irony. While the film prides itself on historical context, the context it provides is simplistic and crude. Nothing is said of the radical Islamist ideology that inspired the revolution. Nothing is revealed about Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful handling of the hostage crisis. The contribution of rising economic expectations to the revolution, and the way Khomeini, in the tradition of all good revolutionaries, declared vengeance on the “privileged few” and promised economic “equality” are ignored. There is no mention of the fact that, under Carter, support for the Shah had actually waned and that Carter refused to bail out the Shah (and yet, the revolution occurred.) There is of course no mention of the fact that the American hostages were released on the day Ronald Reagan took office, or of the possible significance of this fact.

Argo ends by informing us that, after the hostage crisis, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and that Americans again made the mistake of meddling in Middle Eastern affairs. It fails to mention that this happened on Carter’s watch, and that, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Carter was forced to reassess his conciliatory approach. You would never guess, watching Argo, that Reagan’s approach, which was to combine “peace through strength” with the espousal of democratic principles, worked much better with the Soviets than did Carter’s.

  1. Bill Nelson

    The Shah of Iran made one fatal error: land reform.

    In Iran, it was customary to bequeath land to the local immam in your will. Thus, over time, the Immams became the largest landowners, not unlike Christian clerics before the reformation. Pahlavi initiated land reform to re-distribute the land back to the people. Thus earning the emnity of the Mullahs.

    The revoultion began in Qom, the base of the ruling clerics.

  2. George Savage
    C

    Thank you for this post, Anne.

    As I commented to my wife after watching Argo, which taken as a film I greatly enjoyed, “This is about the only possible way anyone could find to praise Jimmy Carter’s handling of Iran:  focus on the six who were saved while ignoring the 52 left in Iranian hands.”

    It is absolutely impossible to imagine a similarly hagiographic treatment of Bill Casey’s CIA and its infinitely more successful effort to obstruct and eventually end the threat of expansionist Soviet communism.

  3. Wylee Coyote
    Anne R. Pierce: Although the film shows revolutionary violence on the Iranian streets, the film doesn’t allow us to hear what the Revolutionaries were actually chanting: “Death to America!,” “Islam, Islam, Khomeini We Will Follow You!,” etc.  In emphasizing the justice of the cause and downplaying the revolution’s hate-filled violence, the film comes close to saying the end justifies the means.

    I have to disagree, I thought the Iranian revolutionary thugs were portrayed as incredibly brutal and dangerous.  One of the pivotal and wrenching scenes in the movie depicts a group of hostages marched into the basement and subjected to a mock execution.  The revolutionary spokeswoman’s words are clearly empty propaganda in the context of the movie.

    Yes, the opening narration was slanted to an Iranian point of view, but when the movie shows, among other things, bodies hanging from construction cranes (and then, in the closing credits, shows period photographs to prove that wasn’t Hollywood embellishment), it’s hard to argue that they’re taking the Iranian side.

  4. doc molloy

    Read this great paper by Lawrence ‘Buck’ Grinter Avoiding the Burden The Carter Doctrine in Perspective.. Beware the Hollywood Affliction.. Reality works best.

  5. Anne R. Pierce
    C
    Wylee Coyote

    Anne R. Pierce: Although the film shows revolutionary violence on the Iranian streets, the film doesn’t allow us to hear what the Revolutionaries were actually chanting: “Death to America!,” “Islam, Islam, Khomeini We Will Follow You!,” etc.  In emphasizing the justice of the cause and downplaying the revolution’s hate-filled violence, the film comes close to saying the end justifies the means.

    I have to disagree, I thought the Iranian revolutionary thugs were portrayed as incredibly brutal and dangerous.  One of the pivotal and wrenching scenes in the movie depicts a group of hostages marched into the basement and subjected to a mock execution.  ….. bodies hanging from construction cranes (anwood embellishment), it’s hard to argue that they’re taking the Iranian side. · 2 minutes ago

    I probably should have said, “The film shows brutal revolutionary violence ….”

    But I think the omission of the radical slogans chanted and displayed on placards and – the general omission of the heart-wrenching scenes shown at the time on TV of the tied up,  blindfolded hostages, is glaring. Why not use those TV images in the film, when they were the quintessential symbols of the time?

  6. FirstAmendment

    Film-wise Argo was enjoyable, although I did think the cars chasing the plane down the runway was almost comical. Wouldn’t the revolutionary guard just call the control tower and tell them to hold the flight, or if it was airborn while still in Iranian airspace tell it to turn around or fighters would be scrambled?But, trying to make Carter look like a good president was the most comical thing of all. Except … there’s a whole generation of young people who have now seen Argo and think this is true. How unfortunate. The power of Hollywood to twist and distort history, while presenting a “true” story, is indeed frightening.

  7. Zafar

    How interesting – when I watched the film I thought that it skipped over the causes of the Iranian revolution quite cavalierly (eg one brief line about Mossadegh’s removal, almost in passing). 

    I realise that the focus was on the story of the hostages, but if you were unaware of the history, you could be excused for thinking that the cause of the revolution was just some nutty religious thinking and mindless antagonism towards the West.  Eye of the beholder, huh?

    (I also really didn’t see this film as being about Carter vs Reagan.)

  8. I agree with Rush: ‘…

    She’s giving an award for the best movie. It turns out to be Argo, which is about what? The successful rescue of six American embassy personnel from Iran in 1979.

    Did nobody see the irony of having the first lady of this regime, which failed to protect the lives of American citizens in Benghazi, present the award? Four Americans died at the US consulate in Benghazi and there’s the first lady of that regime giving out the best picture award to a movie celebrating the successful rescue of six Americans.’

  9. Merina Smith

    I noticed the stuff at the beginning and just  figured it was typical Hollywood exaggeration.  I also observed that they out left richly deserved criticisms of Carter and praise of Reagan.  Still, the movie felt conservative to me.  It just couldn’t help but show the brutality and radicalism of the regime and the virtue in fighting against it.  The characters being rescued were all decent people, and of course, the Canadian Ambassador was a hero.  The movie stuff was very entertaining, and even made fun of Hollywood.  I liked the point that bluff and shallowness run the show there. There was a nice conservative message about the bitter fruits of putting work ahead of family, and then the agent’s family was reunited in the end.  It was definitely a mix, but the overall impression in my mind was patriotic and conservative. 

    The scene with the cars chasing the plane was over-the-top, but hey, it’s a movie, you have to have a chase. 

  10. Anne R. Pierce
    C

    Because they’re such an interesting addition to this discussion, I want to point to David Semark’s comment on England’s actual role, and R. Craigen’s comment on Canada’s actual role in the rescue effort on my previous Hollywood post. 

  11. Anne R. Pierce
    C
    doc molloy: Read this great paper by Lawrence ‘Buck’ Grinter Avoiding the Burden The Carter Doctrine in Perspective.. Beware the Hollywood Affliction.. Reality works best. · 4 hours ago

    Just read it – Agree-great paper!

  12. doc molloy

    Thanks Anne. Now to appease my avatar name sake I’ll have to get a copy of Print The Legend.. I wasn’t aware of the book but I like the look of the subject matter. No doubt you’ve read this

  13. Anne R. Pierce
    C
    Merina Smith: I noticed the stuff at the beginning and just  figured it was typical Hollywood exaggeration.  I also observed that they out left richly deserved criticisms of Carter and praise of Reagan.  Still, the movie felt conservative to me.  It just couldn’t help but show the brutality and radicalism of the regime and the virtue in fighting against it.  The characters being rescued were all decent people, and of course, the Canadian Ambassador was a hero. … It was definitely a mix, but the overall impression in my mind was patriotic and conservative. 

    3 hours ago

    Yes, Argo  is more balanced than the typical Hollywood fare, which is revealing in itself. I have to admit I picked this one to watch because I’m now so cautious about propaganda.  Because it does have the elements you describe, I thought it was a safe bet .. but was disappointed it had to apologize all over itself for telling a positive story about -gasp- a CIA operative.  I thought the theme about the direct causality of the revolution (it was entirely our/the Shah’s fault) was relentless.

  14. Mike Silver

    I read in the credits that Affleck and George Clooney produced this film. How Hollywood left can you get? It was a fine film, very well acted and I enjoyed. But it wasn’t as great as it’s made out to be. Along with the criticisims in this article and posts, the movie focused on the part the movie industry played in the rescue. Assuming this to be factual, it is Affleck’s way of boosting up Hollywood patriotism. The message is that the movie industry is a vital arm of good foreign policy. Maybe in this one instance it was, but in general that’s hardly the case. The producers seem to be lumping Argo with the heroic propanda war films of old Hollywood, while at the same time taking pot shots at the Shah, etc. Hey, they even made Jimmy Carter look good.

  15. Pugshot

    I thought the movie was very good, though not best-picture good. The intro was about what I expected from a liberal Hollywood movie, but the rest of the movie was pretty even-handed. There was the scene of the fake execution of the hostages (showing its affect on them); there was also the scene of the man being hung in the streets., etc. It was made clear that if the six Americans (or the Canadian ambassador and his wife) were discovered, they might be put to death. The only thing that got me a bit P-O’ed was the claim, at the end of the movie, about how this episode showed what a non-violent approach to such a crisis could achieve (not a direct quote, but words to that effect). This struck me as insane. It implied that these people had gotten out of Iran because of something akin to peaceful negotiations. We did the best thing we could have done under the circumstances – we tricked the Iranians. Meanwhile, Carter was trying an armed rescue of the 52 hostages, but, because of inadequate resources and planning, and bad luck, it failed.

  16. Anne R. Pierce
    C
    Pugshot: I thought the movie was very good, though not best-picture good. The intro was about what I expected from a liberal Hollywood movie, but the rest of the movie was pretty even-handed. There was the scene of the fake execution of the hostages (showing its affect on them); there was also the scene of the man being hung in the streets., etc. …The only thing that got me a bit P-O’ed was the claim, at the end of the movie, about how this episode showed what a non-violent approach to such a crisis could achieve (not a direct quote, but words to that effect). This struck me as insane. It implied that these people had gotten out of Iran because of something akin to peaceful negotiations. ….

    I forgot about that – The lecture at the end saying this is what can be achieved when different people in the world cooperate. Again, they didn’t see the irony – Carter had a cooperative approach with Russia, and at the end, they also mention Russia invading Afghanistan.

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