Will Sunday night's Academy Award win for Best Picture reframe the conversation around Argo? Or is the film doomed to polarize viewers indefinitely? Since it opened in the fall, negative reactions to the film have suggested that anyone properly opposed to war, conscious of Muslim polities and cultural representations, and critical of US foreign policy ought to dismiss it. Yet even the most influential reviews are less focused on what actually happens on the screen in Argo and more in a hurry to affirm an ideological position—say, a sense of loyalty to a population living under a dictatorship, or an opposition to sympathetic portrayals of American operatives. There are so many untold stories of ordinary human courage and spirit we should be watching instead, goes the complaint. But the moral soundness of such views still doesn't tell us anything about the content of the film.
Most critics simply can't forgive Argo the audacity of its premise: a feel-good story about the CIA set against a major (and in North American culture, still largely unexamined) international crisis. They scold the filmgoing public, too, for giving in to the populist charms of Hollywood—especially those of Ben Affleck, transformed into previously unsuspected handsomeness with dark locks, a full beard and the conspicuous absence of a tie, which I am compelled to mention only because such an appearance in real life would have had the Basij militia at Mehrabad Airport smiling and waving him through in warm approval.
Some of Argo's detractors have urged us to watch Iranian films instead, prescribing Asghar Farhadi's A Separation and Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film—both highlights of the 2011 festivals—as so much authentic penitence against the sins of Argo's stylish artifice. As an appreciative follower of Iran's independent cinema, I have little patience for this dodge. "Don't watch that guy's movie, watch this guy's!" is fine, among friends, but it's not serious film criticism. The same regime that jailed Jafar Panahi and banned him from making films has now commissioned its own version of the hostage crisis as a "reply" to Argo, operating on the same sad reactionary logic.
Reviewers have objected most of all to scenes of Iranians in loud, passionate street demonstrations because they look too angry. I know the past decade has been very hard on antiwar morale for critics as much as for activists, but it was a revolution. Angry shouting happened, in Farsi, with no subtitles. We need to be able to imagine what that was like. Having violently crushed the 2009 demonstrations of tens of thousands of Iranians calling for democratic reforms, the Ahmedinejad regime might not have banned Argo last month if it showed smiling revolutionaries giving out free hugs.
We need to be able to deal with the images and the stories that do get represented, not just lament the ones that don't. Those of us most directly implicated by the portrayal of Muslims in conflict scenarios have the most at stake, after all, in making rigorous distinctions between a historic instance of genuine (and, however briefly, exhilarating) political anger and the spectacle of undifferentiated "Muslim rage," which thrives wherever historicity and human relate-ability are shut out.
Argo is not a radical or progressive film, but it makes use of documented historic facts and palpable human emotions, and succeeds. What conventional popcorn escapism ever opened, as Argo does, with a female Farsi-inflected voice citing direct CIA culpability for Iran's mid-twentieth century strife? The coolly delivered prologue does the kind of authoritative scene-setting—naming the cause of a conflict, affirming that the past connects to the present—that simply shows respect for the viewer's intelligence.
Twelve years ago, writers, artists, activists and critics who made a similar case for examining America's past faced censorship and accusations of treason in mainstream editorial arenas across North America; the costs of scapegoating have yet to be fully acknowledged. We can perceive the magnitude of what the hard-case revolutionary guard (played by Farshad Farahat) concedes when he drops his intimidating line of questioning in Farsi for a second, muttering at the escapees in clear English, "We have to verify." This is no meeting of absolutely irreconcilable strangers. There is no such thing as the unprecedented, traumatic first encounter between east and west, on which the bankrupt doctrine of "Shock and Awe" depends.
Argo is not really "about" Iran at all. It deserves close critical attention because it shows us white American men who have grown too accustomed to the global exercise of power to be anything but gobsmacked when it breaks loose from their grasp. That break—the unforgettable takeover of the US embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries—constitutes the film's primal scene, the shocking overturn we were never supposed to see. It is Argo's particular genius to have recreated that takeover with pitiless, clear-eyed detachment, and then worked adroitly around it in pursuit of a comparatively apolitical backstory. We see the mostly youngish Tehran crowd at the embassy gates, furious that the Shah has fled to the States; we hear the sound of metal cutting metal; the gate opens; we see their flight across the huge grey yard toward the building. Inside, we see the loss of prestige and control; unmasked American desperation give way to grim calculation and cut losses; all personal ambition reduced to the question of what can be saved.
For the two adrenaline-spiked hours that follow, the tension eases only in a very few brief places, slipping a hint of permissiveness, a flicker of pleasure, into our consciousness like slow-acting drugs. John Goodman's face, solemnly blinking at Ben Affleck for several seconds before he breaks into a slight smile, sends this signal perfectly; so does the instant uplift of Eddie Van Halen's guitar intro to an outdoor scene of partying film producers. Hey, we're back in 1980. This is going to be fun. We are being invited to loosen up, enjoy ourselves.
Why is the film after our collusion in this way? How can pleasure have any right to our attention? We have learned to think of American injustices—the CIA overthrow of Iran's prime minister in 1953, the arrogance of foreign officers who failed to see the revolution coming—with deep indignation. That Argo readily admits to such crimes and failures even while showing us just how remarkably something valuable was saved from the wreckage takes audacity and nerve.
Does that make it wrong or disloyal to enjoy this film? If you were among the millions of people on this planet who, ten short years ago, organized and signed petitions and marched and protested and screamed against the war on Iraq until your heart broke, then you have earned the right to enjoy at least the stinging rebuke personified by the character of Sahar, the Canadian ambassador's housekeeper, (played by Sheila Vand). The camera fools with us at first, coaxing us to give her the cut-eye, until she is questioned by the revolutionaries who come to the gate. "Everyone here is a friend of Iran," she assures them. And when for this deception we see her forced to flee alone, finding asylum in Iraq, that vengeful cinematic shoe is not being aimed at your head, earnest viewer. It's being hurled, with excellent aim, on your behalf.
Only one crucial point in Argo strikes me as an actual scandal: the report that the revolutionary guards, intent on identifying every American who worked at the U.S. embassy, have assigned the task of combing through the shredded documents in the basement not among themselves, but to children with quick fingers—sweatshop kids!—who must reassemble photos of the six Americans who remain unaccounted for. From the mounds of tangled paper before him, a child extracts a long fragment of a black-and-white photo, holding it up to the partial portrait in his other hand, while a supervisor looks on. Has he found a match?
Each recovered fraction of eyebrow and jawline brings the hiding Americans inexorably closer to being identified, ratcheting up our suspense and dread. The vertical stripes become the film's central, mesmerizing visual motif. (A good film-nerd exercise would be to count up all the scenes—vertical blinds, window bars and gates—that repeat it). These images can feed into whatever narrative is required. Are they spies? Deserters? Filmmakers? Action heroes? Patriots? Figuring out their identities becomes a remarkably tactile exercise, involving film scripts, gaudy posters, faked Canadian passports, fictional identities to be memorized overnight, hand-drawn storyboards explained to skeptical revolutionary guards who soften and grow visibly interested, repeating the plot to each other, mimicking the American's gestures.
With this visual emphasis on the real-life uses of artifice, Argo gives us nothing less than the tools and methods of its own composition. "What plausible story can we tell?" not only kickstarts the action for our protagonist, Tony Mendez the CIA agent, but for our meta-protagonist, director Ben Affleck. It's the half-anxious, half-intrigued question that drove me to line up on the film's opening weekend: What sense can a filmmaker of Affleck's standing possibly make out of that electrifying political moment of thirty-three years ago? I think he made the film—the halls of Langley filled with quarreling white men, the genially tacky Burbank film sets, Led Zeppelin reverberating through clouds of smoke—that was entirely suitable for him to make.
Whether the child labourers carefully assembling those images were really in that now-infamous Tehran basement or whether they are one of the film's fictions, when I think of them, I am also going to think of American filmmakers in search of redemption stories from ongoing wars and occupations being compelled to work in a similarly humble fashion: combing for all they're worth through masses of evidence, thousands of accounts of the ignoble and the egregious, pinning together a few strands about one plausible good turn, one convincing cover where everyone got home alive. I honestly can't begrudge them that.
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