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Books and Culture

Michael J. Totten
Ben Affleck’s Masterwork
The director’s new Argo, a great—and nonpartisan—political film
12 November 2012

Argo is one of the best films about the Middle East that Hollywood has ever produced. Set mostly in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, the story centers on six American diplomats who, after escaping the U.S. Embassy when supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini break in and take everyone captive, take shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The hero is CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez, played by director Ben Affleck. He flies to Iran posing as a Canadian filmmaker who’s meeting his six-person advance team to scout for exotic locations to shoot a low-budget science-fiction movie. The Canadian government issues passports for the American diplomats, and Mendez helps them memorize their cover identities, their fake back stories in Canada, and their fake jobs as filmmakers. That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting out of Iran while predatory Revolutionary Guards hunt for them everywhere.

The real Tony Mendez, who has coauthored a book by the same name, worked closely with screenwriter Chris Terrio and says that the film version of Argo is magnificent. He’s right. It’s a relentlessly suspenseful political thriller whose 33-year-old subject matter resonates powerfully in the present. Deftly shot in Turkey rather than the now-tired standbys of Morocco or Jordan, the film recreates the shagginess of the late 1970s without overdoing it, and all the actors except Affleck look just like the real people they’re portraying. The superb acting, tight script, and smoldering tension brilliantly bring back the ominous mood that the hostage crisis engendered here at home. I was just a child in 1979, but the events that Affleck returns to life seared themselves into me nevertheless, and the horror and dread of it all came flooding back in the theater. A subplot in California, where Mendez goes to Hollywood to get assistance from the film industry, provides some refreshing, light-hearted breathing room, but it doesn’t last. The tale builds to an almost intolerably intense crescendo.

The leftist political bias that many of us have come to expect from Hollywood films about the Middle East and terrorism is absent here. “This is really a tribute to the folks in our clandestine services and our diplomats in the foreign service who are risking their lives over there,” Affleck said in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. O’Reilly wondered what Affleck’s liberal friends in Hollywood might say. “I don’t worry too much about what my liberal friends are going to say,” Affleck said. “I made a movie that my friends who are Democrats and my friends who are Republicans can both watch.”

For the most part, he succeeded: Argo has a 96 percent rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, which reviews movies. But the film does have detractors. Few of these are conservatives; the harshest review I could find anywhere on the right is Joe Bendel’s at Libertas. Bendel likes the film overall, but “in its opening voiceover narration,” he writes, “Argo helpfully explains that everything that happened in Iran was the fault of America and Great Britain, because we supported the Shah. After we’re properly chastised, Argo then admits that the early days of the Islamic Revolutionary regime were little more than a reign of terror, culminating with the seizure of the American embassy, in gross violation of international law.”

Many conservatives might agree. When the storyboard-style introduction informs the audience about the Shah’s British- and American-backed coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, it feels like the start of a lecture. But the lecture ends as abruptly as it begins, and at no point does the narrator say that the Shah’s crimes were America’s fault. He ran a police state with an oppressive internal security regime by his own choice. Besides, something had to be said to provide context for Iranian anti-Americanism in 1979. Otherwise, low-information viewers in the audience would be justifiably puzzled when they saw fist-pumping mobs shouting down the Great Satan in Tehran’s streets. They were angry about America’s support for the regime they just overthrew—and it wasn’t just the Islamists who were angry but the liberals and leftists, too. The background is a bit simplistic, to be sure, but it’s the intro to a thriller, not a documentary on the History Channel.

And it’s hardly fair to say Argo “admits” that Iran’s revolutionary government put a reign of terror in place. That’s partly what the film is about. The Iranian revolutionaries are the bad guys. They’re not portrayed as rebels with a cause or as the moral equivalents of their enemies. They’re unflinchingly shown as the hysterically bigoted and terroristic thugs that they are, shooting civilians in the streets and hanging enemies of the state from construction cranes.

Just about everyone who deeply dislikes the movie is on the left. “It is a crappy movie with an insidious political agenda,” says Kim Nicolini at Counterpunch. “Argo, above all else, is a piece of conservative liberal propaganda created by Hollywood to support the Obama administration’s conservative liberal politics as we move toward the Presidential election. In addition, it also primes the war wheels for an American-supported Israeli attack on Iran, so that Leftists can feel okay about the war when they cast their vote for Obama in November.” Andrew Schenker takes a similar tack at Slant: “The film quite clearly aims to draw parallels between that moment of history and the United States’ current and increasingly belligerent attitude toward the Islamic Republic, goaded continually on by a bellicose Israeli state. . . . The film becomes an increasingly blinkered tale of the heroic C.I.A. versus the Muslim menace, exactly the narrative that today’s hawkish politicians love to propagate.” He even compares Argo to D. W. Griffith’s appallingly racist Birth of a Nation.

What did these people expect? That Iran’s fascistic government would be portrayed as no worse than Jimmy Carter’s elected American government, or kidnapped diplomats as no worse than hostage-takers and killers? That a CIA agent who risks his life to save people he’s never met shouldn’t be shown as heroic? A “balanced” film that wallowed in that sort of thing would be a monstrosity. (And it wouldn’t get a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes; it would get about a 4.)

It’s a testament to Affleck’s skill as a director that the negative reactions to Argo are strictly political, and it’s a tribute to his fairness that he managed to release a political film that both Democrats and Republicans could enjoy shortly before the national election. Unlike the ax-grinding films that Hollywood produced about the Iraq war during the Bush administration, Argo will be appreciated for decades.

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