Many of the almost universally positive reviews of Ben Affleck’s Argo laud its “nail biting thrills” and “clinching tension.” But I wasn’t biting my nails or feeling any tension as I watched, mainly because I was confident that I knew where things were heading. I don’t mean I knew the actual ending to the story, though. I was born in the early 80s and didn’t know anything about the Iranian hostage situation or how it was resolved until after I saw Argo and decided to look into it (and it’s a good thing I didn’t take the movie at its word, since others have already pointed out the film’s various historical inaccuracies).
What I mean when I say I knew the ending is that I knew, broadly, that the film would end happily, with things tidily resolved, and, above everything else, would be sure to depict the CIA positively — as well-intentioned, helpful, and interested in nothing more and nothing less than helping do good. The kind of organization you can’t help but want to be part of. To put it another way, the possibility that the U.S. would be shown screwing things up in one way or another, or that things wouldn’t work out in its favor, never entered my mind.
But let me back up for a minute to the week before I saw Argo, when, as chance would have it, a friend emailed me a review of Tricia Jenkins’ recently released book, The CIA in Hollywood: How the Agency Shapes Film and Television. After learning that the C.I.A. employs an Entertainment Liaison whose job it is to meet with Hollywood-types to help insure positive depictions of the agency, that stars have been used in CIA recruitment videos and CIA employees have helped devise and pitch television scripts, it’s hard to view any Hollywood production without a healthy bit of skepticism.
Watching with all with this information fresh in my mind not only ruined the suspense, it also made the film incredibly difficult to take seriously. And it doesn’t seem that the filmmakers have treated the material seriously, either; the film is often more concerned with hackish, sloppy narrative insertions that make one thing clear: the focus of the film is not to offer any valuable insight into cultural differences, provide any meaningful historical context, or offer a useful perspective on the positions and histories of the U.S. and/or Iran, not to mention all the other topics that were so ripe for exploration here.
Instead, we’re given a series of bland, forced, melodramatic moments and characters that are under/misdeveloped and lifeless. And if the film is blindly and simplistically interested in portraying the U.S. and the CIA as blameless heroes, its vision of Iran and Iranians is just as narrow. The few Iranians we meet are such poorly done caricatures that it’s difficult not to turn away in anger and revulsion.
Plus, there’s the issue of timing. The folks over at Voxunion put it nicely: “Argo is about a fake film made by CIA to save West from Iran while itself a nicely timed film for framing Iran as still an enemy v West.”
But It’s not as if this were anything new. It’s just that Argo seems particularly overt in its attempts at social control/suggestion, so clearly designed to recast history and create favorable impressions of U.S. power (and negative impressions of Iran) that it’s impossible to view it as anything close to honest or thoughtful. But that’s what most people are calling it. To see this film so widely and uncritically embraced might be a testament to how accustomed people have gotten to absorbing this kind of distortion from Hollywood.
And that distortion (and the film’s central logic) is best encapsulated in its last images. As the credits begin rolling, viewers are presented with still photographs from the actual events positioned alongside stills from the film’s recreated versions. These seem to appear in order to remind viewers of the supposed reality and spot-on accuracy of the film (so that they can get a kick out of seeing what a masterful job has been done and what careful attention to detail Hollywood has paid). What this moment illustrates to me is the sinister notion (central to U.S. culture) that appearance is everything. It might not be a good film, but it’s a great advertisement for U.S. imperial power.