When in June 2009, Barack Obama described the President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak as a ‘force for stability and good in the region’ he was echoing the description US President Jimmy Carter had reserved for the Shah of Iran in 1978. Mubarak, like his Iranian counterpart, a dictator, was similarly overthrown in a popular revolution not long after his American Presidential blessing. And revolutions are far from stable. Argo, a new film directed by Ben Affleck about a CIA-operation to rescue a group of US embassy hostages during the Iranian revolution of 1979, might be seen as a similarly unfortunate appropriation of the past.
The film Argo is based on a true story about an undercover CIA operation to rescue out of Iran six of the US embassy workers under the guise of a Canadian film crew doing a location recce. Argo is the name of the fake film production, a sci-fi fantasy set in the exotic locations of bazaar and desert. This apparently stands in contrast to the ‘real’ Argo, the film we are watching, which through its appropriation of archival documentary footage and imagery from the period (and celebrated in the end credits through an image-by-image comparison), is supposedly as close to reality as possible. But underneath the sometimes accurate recreations of 1980 Tehran, the US embassy, the late 70s fashion, make-up and set-design, this Argo is also a fantasy. A Hollywood fantasy of a past it hopes to rewrite.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 did many things but above all it delivered a devastating blow to US hegemony in the Middle East, removing in one fell swoop Mohammad Reza Shah, the US “policeman” against Arab radicalism, whose military dictatorship had accommodated the largest staging post for CIA operatives in the region and who enthusiastically purchased enough fighter jets and military hardware to fill a desert. A fair deal, one might say, for being planted into power in a CIA coup in 1953. Nevertheless, so seriously was all this undone by the Iranian revolution (and the ensuing hostage crisis) and so serious was the blow to the image of American invincibility, that its ghost still lingers like a nightmare in the psyche of consecutive American governments.
Cinema, and Hollywood in particular, has proved a useful tool overcoming such historical traumas by revising them. The Reaganite-era, heralded by the end of the hostage crisis, was particularly good at this with regards to the Vietnam war, churning out a spate of films which reimagined Americans as the real victims of the war, and in some cases, as the real victors. Reagan, himself a Hollywood-actor-turned-President, resold the war as a “noble cause”.
In Iran, the same period ended with a series of films dealing with the domestic implications of the Iranian revolution in more complicated ways, fusing neorealism with Iranian poetic traditions, pre-modernist avant-garde drama and Shia notions of martyrdom and piety. Indeed, the Iranian New Wave, as it would be later described, was an antithesis to Hollywood cinema. It owed its austere aesthetics concerned with the plight of the oppressed, not just to filmmakers’ creative attempts at overcoming censorship rules, but also to the sense of a need for national economic self-sufficiency and to Islamic populism - the same factors incidentally that images of blindfolded Americans and Ayatollah Khomeini broadcast on US television sets in 1980 were indebted to.
Innovatively subverting expectations of how cinema depicts the real, Iranian art-house questioned, at the level of cinematic form, the uncertainties of a society whose emergence from the suffocating constrains of an eight-year war with Iraq was returning to the ideals of a revolution that had established its long-sought independence. It was a legacy of enquiry manifested in Iranian popular cinema as well, less formally perhaps but certainly in its narratives and subject matters, and mastered finally in Nader and Simin: a Separation (2011) by Asghar Farhadi. A Separation’s success was not just its powerful articulation of the underlying tensions of Iranian society, but in receiving an Oscar it also had the audacity to win on Hollywood’s home turf.
Argo could thus be seen as a reaction of deep-seated US government frustrations against Iranian national independence, and in the cultural manifestation of the same resentment, Hollywood’s attempt to wrestle control of Iranians’ artistic endeavours to “speak” in the sphere of a US-dominated global medium. Iranians do speak in this film. In fact, more often they shout. But regularly lacking subtitles, some of the rare insightful dialogue or the chants of demonstrators calling for independence, freedom and the return of the Shah (for trial) is rendered for a non-Farsi speaker into an incomprehensible oriental rage, rather than a legitimate reaction against a US-imposed dictatorship. Whilst a beautifully animated archival sequence at the beginning gives a welcome background to the revolution’s roots in the CIA-organised coup, it hardly makes-up for a film where the agency of Iranian subjects is depicted as a savage rant.
In silencing the Iranian voice, Hollywood represses America’s own reality. Using the story of six hostages being rescued as the story of the hostage crisis, Argo constructs a facade, like one of its sets, over the reality of the 444-day saga, because the truth is too painful to remember. Operation Eagle Claw, the main rescue attempt to free the other 52 hostages ended in disaster when two helicopters collided in the desert killing eight US servicemen and resulting in an internationally humiliating debacle for the US government. Khomeini’s delay in releasing the hostages until the day of Reagan’s inauguration as President was the final snub in a crisis regarded as the determining factor in Carter losing the election. The attempt ever since to restore the myth of American invincibility and control is enacted in Argo’s high tech imagining of a US victory, thus overcoming the trauma of defeat, with Hollywood playing ‘hero’. Having President Carter’s voice over the end credits stressing the need for patience, however, may also be viewed as part of this restoration of image by the filmmakers, against warmongering to one of rationality and the desire for peaceful solutions.
But whilst Argo might be able to recreate a superficial grainy technicolour ‘authenticity’ with big bucks and impressive sets, it can’t match the complex personal and political interventions offered by Iranian realism. Similarly, despite its military and economic superiority, the Obama administration, like Carter’s, is still exasperated by its inability to make the Iranian government do what it wants it to do.
If Argo is a reflection of any reality, it has to be this one.