Argo between Scylla and Charibdis

I think I might be reading too much Daily Kos and Huffington Post because I went into seeing both Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, two A-list Oscar-nominated movies dealing with America’s relationship with the Islamic world, expecting to have my Islamophobia outrage meter go off the charts.  But it didn’t happen either time!  Is Hollywood learning?  Or maybe Hollywood just doesn’t want to wade into the strange right-wing politics of the Islamophobia Industry.

Since I wrote a response about Zero Dark Thirty, I thought I’d weigh in on Argo.  First of all, I enjoyed Argo immensely.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  “Enjoy” is probably not the word I’d use to describe my experience with Zero Dark Thirty.  “Disquieting” would be more appropriate.  Strange fellow that I am, though, I like it when my movies disquiet me, make me think and reflect on the world in a new way.  In short, Argo is a little more of a formulaic Hollywood thriller with its beats in all the right places.  It does this well, though.  So, while Zero Dark Thirty was a rough experience that earned my respect after reflection, Argo was a rollicking good time that gave me a little more pause on reflection.

Sahar under examination

SHOW DON’T TELL

Argo really isn’t Islamophobic.  Its depictions of post-revolutionary violence, by all accounts, are fairly accurate.  There were vengeance squads and a generous supply of the Angry Muslim MobTM shouting “Death to America.”  And the movie doesn’t forefront the religious dimension, so I want to give credit where it’s due.  But it does nothing to encourage the audience to reflect on its stereotypes about Iran and Iranians.  We are told, in an animated prologue and in a few opening snatches of dialogue, about the reasons the revolutionaries hated America, reduced mainly to the CIA-backed coup d’état against Mossadeq and (re-)installation of the Shah in 1953.  But we don’t see any of the cruelty of the Shah alluded to in the prologue reflected in the lives of the characters.

In fact, the movie’s main flaw is the lack of character development.  The only character we really learn much about is Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez, who is working through his relationship with his estranged wife and son during the plot of the movie (a page from Spielberg, perhaps?)  We learn tidbits about the Houseguests (the six rescued embassy employees), but not really much to make them different from one another, except for the one couple that has doubts about the scheme.  Characters in a narrative are made known through their choices, but very few choices outside those of Mendez are ever shown to us.  Even the Canadian ambassador, who arguably makes the most fateful choice of the plot, does so off-screen.  Why not a scene depicting a discussion with his wife about the pro’s and con’s of harboring American fugitives?

One other choice comes to the fore, and that is the choice of the Canadian ambassador’s maid, Sahar.  When questioned by the Revolutionary Guard, she decides to stick to the story that the Houseguests are Canadians and have only been in the house a couple days, thereby throwing the villains off the track.  We see her again at the end of the movie crossing the border into Iraq, so at least we know she got out (on the eve of the devastating Iran-Iraq war).  What a missed opportunity!    She would have been the perfect vehicle for exploring the conflicted relationship Iranians have with their revolution.   We don’t know why she made the choice she did.  We know nothing about her family, her background, and how she has been affected by the Revolution, other that the fact that people getting shot makes her upset.   In fact, for most of the movie, we are led to suspect that she might betray the Houseguests.  Surely a dialogue between the ambassador’s wife and the maid would have fleshed out both characters (From what I’ve read, the ambassador’s wife did an awful lot herself to aid the mission, at great risk).

All other Iranian characters are amazingly flat.  The Revolutionary Guard are unambiguously villainous (OK, I’d concede they’re pretty yucky in reality, but universally so?)  And the everyday Iranian is depicted as a volatile fanatic, such as the scene in the bazaar with the enraged photographed man, which apparently did not actually occur.  On a side note, Iranian Shi’ite attitudes toward image making and photography are radically different from those of the Taliban, who only used photography when they felt it would aid their ideology.  Yeah, it adds drama, but it also adds to stereotypes.

Non-aligned hero?

THE POLITICAL DIMENSION

Let’s face it.  The war drums are pounding for a confrontation with Iran, even though many analysts warn against it, even while the current Israeli regime tries to ramp it up.  I don’t think many people doubt that Iran does indeed want nuclear weaponry and that their threats against Israel are credible (although perhaps only in the pressure of desperation).  But while many Iranians are very dissatisfied with their government, violent revolution or foreign invasion is not something most want to go through again anytime soon.  Recent assessments have suggested that the average Iranian isn’t as anti-American as the state-sponsored anti-American chants after state-required Friday prayers would suggest.

The Iranian situation is far more complicated than either Iraq (dictator with small elite class) or Afghanistan (already in a state of civil war).  It’s a theocracy, but its nexus of power is not focused on one person or class, as the tensions between unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and elected populist President Ahmadinejad indicate.  Ahmadinejad’s term limit will end in 2013, when there will be a new elected president.  It’s not clear if the nuclear ambitions of Iran derive from the President’s or the Supreme Leader’s office, but the politics of Iran are complicated and factional.  There are multiple parties, within certain theocratic limits. Will new diplomatic options open up next year?

There have been few opportunities to educate the American public about the incredibly complex situation in Iran.  Argo, as a big-budget A-list actor production, had a real platform to fill this void, and it decided not to.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I’ll chalk this up to lack of vision rather than a deliberate attempt to obscure.  If you want a more nuanced view of revolutionary Iran, take a look at Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography Persepolis, also a film.  It represents the view from the Iranian left, a victim of both the Shah’s regime and the revolutionary regime.  I’d also recommend the writings of ‘Ali Shari’ati, a leftist-religious dissident who died before the Revolution, but is certainly one of the fathers of the Revolution.  He’ll make you understand the passion behind the revolution more than anyone else.  Rejecting Khomeini’s vision doesn’t mean we have to make the Shah look great.  Argo, while being a fun time, made the choice to not make us think about this complexity.  Perhaps that tells us something about Affleck’s character.

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