We went to see Argo last night, the new movie starring Ben Affleck that is based on Antonio Mendez’ book about his mission to rescue six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 – 1980. I went expecting to see a Hollywood thriller, and I was not disappointed. I was also pleased that there was no Iran-bashing in the film. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer:
Ultimately, however, while the movie is very well-made, it left me cold, and not just because I knew the ending. (I have a vague memory of watching TV when the announcement was made that the six Americans had gotten out safely.)
I have both a personal and a professional interest in how Iran is represented in American culture. My wife is from Iran, which means my son is half Iranian, and so I care very deeply that the portrayal is accurate, that however it may be slanted politically – because all portrayals are slanted politically – it does not do an injustice to Iranian anything. Also, I am a translator of classical Persian poetry and so the question of how to present the history, culture and ideas of another nation, another people is one that I think about quite a lot. As I said above, I was happy that Argo did not engage in the Iran– and Muslim-bashing that is all too common in the United States these days, but I was very disappointed in the prologue that is supposed to provide a historical and political context for the film.
Granted, the movie is a fictionalized version of actual events, not a documentary, and so it is not fair to expect a nuanced account of what caused the Iranian Revolution. Still, there was one moment in the prologue, which is given as a series of storyboards, that I found truly disturbing. The prologue sets up the events of the movie by presenting, more or less, the Islamic Republic’s version of why the revolution happened. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is described as a corrupt and decadent ruler, completely detached from the suffering of his people. The narrator of the prologue talks about the meals he had flown in from Europe, for example, and also about how it was rumored that his wife, Farah Diba, bathed herself in milk. Whether or not this is true, the storyboard accompanying this rumor is a prime example of orientalism at its worst. The queen is shown in profile, beautiful and naked, standing in a tub full of milk, while her serving women, all wearing head scarves, wait on her. The image epitomizes every sexualized stereotype about the Muslim world that you can name and, to the degree that it is supposed to provide context for the film’s narrative, it does an injustice, frankly, to both pre– and post-revolutionary Iran. The image made me angry, but it was pretty much the only misstep in portraying Iran that I saw.
What left me cold about the movie, ultimately, is that it was nothing more than a suspense-filled version of a story I already knew the ending to. Aside from learning details of what happened that I could not have known at the time – and I have no idea which parts of the movie are true to the facts and which are not – I did not learn why I should care about this story other than that Antonio Mendez saved the lives of these six people. It is, of course, wonderful that he did, but the situation in which they found themselves was, and frankly still is, so full of opportunities for deepening our understanding of Iran and of ourselves, that I though it was a shame the movie stayed on the surface of the narrative the way it did. The Iranians in the film are not much more than two-dimensional characters, foils for Mendez’ ingenuity in executing his scheme; and with the exception of one brief scene, the Westerners in Iran engage in no introspection about the revolution that is happening around them and what their role, as representatives of this country, might have been in bringing it about. Obviously, this was not the movie Affleck wanted to make, which is fine; but the movie he did make is not one that I will carry with me as anything other than a wonderfully made, but essentially mindless entertainment.