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.