Hollywood loves to think of itself as socially significant. But given how long it can take to finance a film—let alone make one—it’s exceedingly rare for its products to be attuned to the zeitgeist. So it’s fortuitous for the makers of the new movie Argo that its depiction of rioters storming a U.S. embassy might be mistaken for footage from the evening news. At the same time, current events make the movie’s implication that the Americans were kind of asking for it all the more unsettling.
Argo is set during the 1979 Iranian Revolution that deposed the shah and installed the theocracy that rules Iran to this day. The film’s early scenes would be frightening even if they weren’t so disturbingly familiar. A mob shouting anti-American slurs grows in size, sound, and rage. The Americans trapped inside their embassy watch in horror as the crowd finally breaches the entrance and rushes the compound.
The movie (reviewed by John Podhoretz on page 38 of this issue) opened October 12, a month after four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were murdered in a violent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya—and just days after President Obama admitted the assault was a premeditated terrorist strike. I spoke with director and star Ben Affleck about the film twice, first at a press conference in Beverly Hills, then with a few other journalists in Washington, D.C. At both events, the 40-year-old filmmaker emphasized that he didn’t set out to make a political statement. “It was always important to us that the movie not be politicized. We went to great pains to try to make it very factual and fact-based, . . . knowing that it was coming up before an election in the United States, when a lot of things get politicized,” he said. “We couldn’t obviously forecast how terrible things would become now.”
Argo is based on the true story of how the CIA, working with the Canadian government, secretly brought home six Americans who managed to escape as a student mob took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. Fifty-two Americans spent 444 days in captivity. The half-dozen who got away hid in the homes of two Canadians, one the ambassador, before escaping months later on a commercial flight. CIA officer Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, concocted an absurd—but successful—plan to give the six cover identities as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a science-fiction story with an exotic setting.
You expect Hollywood to take liberties when translating real events to celluloid. But Argo doesn’t just simplify the story of the revolution; it corrupts it. The way Affleck frames events, the tyrannical shah, kept in power by the CIA, embarked on a Westernization of the country that enraged Iran’s citizenry, leading to a popular uprising in which Americans were targeted because of their complicity in human rights violations.
Everything about the very entertaining Argo is colorful, but the picture it paints of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is black and white. Characters in the film declare he tortured people and “killed months-old babies in the arms of their mothers.” There’s no question he was an unsavory leader; like every Middle Eastern ruler, he cracked down on dissent. But he also gave women the vote and the ability to become lawyers, judges, and elected officials. Those rights were immediately curtailed by the revolution. Pahlavi raised the age at which girls could be married to 15; after the revolution, the mullahs lowered it to 9.
The film mentions none of those positive acts. I asked Affleck why he characterized the Iranian players the way he did. Those watching without an understanding of recent history would have no idea that women fared much better under the shah than in the regime that followed. “That’s a really good question. I’m glad you brought it up,” he responded. He argued that he had given a three-dimensional view of the prerevolutionary regime because, during a brief montage, “We showed female scientists working in a lab.”