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Letting the Rabble Off Easy

The Iranian Revolution, according to Ben Affleck.

Oct 29, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 07 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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He explained that he thought it more essential for viewers to learn what the United States wrought in Iran. (Read “our” and “we” here as “America.”) “This theme of the unintended consequences of great powers getting into business with regimes in other countries is highly relevant, obviously. You have Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria now, and so on. While I didn’t want to be didactic .  .  . we did want to factually tell this story and talk about how we believe that our support of the shah was right in part because of his progressive stand on a lot of these issues. And we looked the other way in terms of some of the political repression and the absence of democracy and some of the literal atrocities that took place. That narrative very closely mirrors the narrative around other countries, primarily in the Middle East. So it wasn’t really about placing a value judgment on what happened to women after the Islamic Revolution.”

He didn’t think Americans needed to be reminded of the sins of the ruling theocrats anyway. “One of the things that we were all operating under was the assumption that people know,” he said. “It was Khomeini then. It’s Khamenei now. And we all know that it’s become quite repressive.”

Affleck comprehends more about the Iranian Revolution than his movie suggests. “The beginning of the revolution involved Communists and secularists and merchants and people who were just looking to get out from under the yoke of the shah’s oppression,” he said at one point. Many of these
people, pushed aside as Khomeini consolidated power, came to regret inadvertently helping give rise to theocracy. The hostage-taking served to cement Khomeini’s control. “It was hard for the United States and the Carter administration to understand why this guy doesn’t want to deal with us. What they didn’t realize at the time was that it wasn’t necessarily all about us or even about the shah.”

That’s not the impression Argo gives. The embassy takeover is portrayed as payback for propping up a despot. “The people starved,” the narrator informs us of the shah’s nearly three decades in power. Pahlavi’s reforms didn’t much help the agricultural sector, it’s true. But they did modernize the country and create wealth that, besides increasing his own coffers, expanded the middle class. Between 1964 and 1978, the gross national product of Iran grew at an average annual rate of 13.2 percent. In the decade after the revolution, it decreased, on average, 1.7 percent a year. In 1979, unemployment was 8 percent. Now, economists guess it to be between 20 and 25 percent.

“I don’t think anyone would argue that the Islamic Revolution was good for the country,” Affleck said. “It’s just that it was a reaction to the shah, who was not good for the country, who was embezzling a lot.” Affleck argued that statistics don’t tell the full story. “Unemployment was low, but a lot of those jobs were done by foreigners, because they didn’t have Persians who were trained to fly the helicopters he was buying and run the cranes and even drive trucks. So there was a lot of importation of labor that the people resented.”

To be fair, Affleck doesn’t paint the revolutionaries in rosy hues. “You see them hanging people from construction cranes, you see firing squads happening impromptu in the streets,” he pointed out, “you see a place that’s living in fear under the Revolutionary Guard.”

The movie leaves out how brutally the revolutionaries treated their American captives, except for one scene in which, for amusement, they make hostages believe they’re about to face a firing squad. Simply seeing Argo, you might believe the Iranian official who, at the time, called the hostages “our guests.” But it’s a strange host who subjects his visitors to beatings and long stretches of solitary confinement, treatment so unbearable that more than one hostage attempted suicide.

Some filmmakers would have walked out on—or at least expressed irritation at—critical challenges to their work. Affleck remained engaged. He mused at the 2004 Democratic convention that he might one day run for office—a plausible ambition given his evident political skills. For now, he’s a famous face and an artist taken increasingly seriously. At the end of our back-and-forth in two cities, he remained firmly behind his work, which could net him his first Oscar since the award he shared as a young screenwriter with Matt Damon, for 1997’s Good Will Hunting.

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