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.”
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.
“It’s an extraordinarily complicated scenario,” he concluded. “I was a Middle Eastern studies major. I took classes and classes and classes on this and still don’t feel I understood the Iranian revolution sufficiently. I do know that we tried to capture the essence of the truth. I absolutely stand by the prologues—people call it the history lesson—but I also acknowledge that we did not have the room, dramatically, to really get into the minutiae and the complexity and the nuance of what happened as the Islamic Revolution took hold. I do feel that we show it in a fairly negative light, but I also wanted to give people some context, so that they see it wasn’t just mad barbarians who made a rush for a country, but that this was something that was developing over time as a reaction to the shah’s policies.”
A savvy advocate. The hunky actor turns out to be also an intellectually inclined spokesman—with the self-discipline never to stray from his talking points.