Saturday, October 20, 2012

Argo and Hollywood's "Muslim World" Problem

I happened to read a blurb about Argo, the new Middle East thriller directed by and starring Ben Affleck a month ago. As someone with a bit of understanding of the dynamics of Iran in the 20th century, I was clearly interested. Also, knowing that Affleck, a politically knowledgeable actor who was close to one of the most outspoken progressives of the 20th century, the late Howard Zinn, made me think that this might be a movie that could teach America a little about the Middle East, minus the usual jingoism and xenophobia. Well, having just watched Argo a few nights ago...progress is slow. Considering the rise of the Islamophobia network over the past decade, this is unfortunate. Argo is only slightly better than the usual Hollywood narrative about Muslims.

So, first things first. I will give Affleck credit - he clearly knows Iran is a touchy subject, and he made a point to open the movie with some discussion about what got us to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This was useful. There are some comments in the beginning of the movie from CIA operatives that note that the Shah was not exactly a good guy. However, the movie only spends a few minutes providing some sense of context.

In case you don't know the story, the CIA, in one of its first coups (along with the coup in Guatemala in the same year), overthrew the democratically elected and popular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Mossadegh nationalized Iranian oil, angered by British unwillingness to renegotiate a fairer deal than the one in place at the time, which the British had agreed to with Iran's massively corrupt monarchs. Mossadegh used the US-Saudi Arabia deal as a blueprint, but Britain refused, much to America's annoyance. However, over time, the Dulles brothers successfully framed Mossadegh as a potential "communist" (he wasn't), which led the US to join the UK in Operation Ajax, the coup that overthrew the popular Mossadegh and put in place the Shah, a brutal authoritarian dictator. After a long and deadly reign, much of the country revolted against him, leading to the 1979 revolution. After the revolution, Khomeini and the hardline clerics silenced their liberal allies (the anti-Shah revolt involved seemingly everyone, making this move a harsh betrayal to that movement), transforming a secular authoritarian dictatorship to essentially a religious authoritarian dictatorship (albeit with elections). For a more complete recap of America's history with Iran, see this previous post.

Understand that, to get the revolution in 1979, given how much an authoritarian state the Shah's Iran was, you had to have mass unrest. It wasn't just some parts of Iranian society that was the whole society that rebelled. Why did that happen? The Shah's rule was absolute and absolutely horrific. Argo uses animation to illustrate the torture for just a few seconds in the first few minutes that the Shah routinely doled out, but using cartoons makes it seem much less serious. SAVAK, essentially the Shah's thought police (trained by the CIA and Mossad), were brutal. The Shah was merciless. You think Saddam did some terrible things to his people? Yeah...the Shah was worse. Yet...Affleck just shows animation for a second or two.

He also makes a point to mention the Shah's efforts to Westernize Iran, right before cutting to the revolution. This is somewhat true - the Shah definitely wanted Iran to look more like America. However, the way the film juxtaposes that point with the massive, screaming crowd outside the American embassy makes it seem like the crazy religious people comprising all of Iran rebelled largely against the Shah's efforts to get them to wear jeans and not because of torture, dictatorship, repression, or widespread poverty.

This is a huge problem with the film, and with the treatment of Muslims in Hollywood in general. While Affleck does provide some context (again, he does talk briefly about Mossadegh and the Shah's torture), he also leaves enough unsaid or not said well enough to make it very easy for people who don't know what happened to get a false narrative. It is not hard to see how some viewers would think that the Shah did some bad things, but was just trying to move Iran into the modern world, and the religious fanatics that comprise the country went crazy and overthrew the regime. This is a common viewpoint of history amnesiacs who like to point out that Tehran during the Shah's reign was such a modern city. was pretty Western, which isn't bad at all...there was also a lot of torture, murder, and monarchical-like wealth disparity beneath the surface. But hey...they had billboards and fancy cars on the streets...hooray!

Argo does not mention how corrupt the Shah was, how his economic policies drove most Iranians into desperate poverty while he and his family and friends lived in obscene wealth. It doesn't mention that he was one of the most brutal autocratic rulers in the region. It doesn't mention how diverse the protest movement was. It does show a lot of angry, screaming Iranians...but without understanding what they were actually so angry about (the Shah's horrible rule, and America's role in robbing them of their democracy), it makes them look fanatical. Yes, some of them were religious extremists. But most were not, and Argo certainly doesn't make that point at all. It also doesn't show how or why the religious zealots essentially hijacked the revolution. The simple fact is (see Egypt today), religious organizations have some of the best institutions in autocratic states, because it is difficult to shut them down. Why, for instance, did the Muslim Brotherhood win elections in Egypt, even though they really aren't that popular? Because they have a strong organizational base in Egypt, much much stronger than any other opposition groups. The same was true in Iran - the mosque network was much better established than other anti-Shah networks, which gave them an advantage in mobilizing. They also resorted to serious violence afterwards to solidify their rule. Those two factors help explain why Khomeini and his band of bearded autocratic brethren were able to take control of the revolution. But...again...they were not the only people marching. They silenced most of their companions after the Shah's regime fell. But...again, Argo makes it seem like he revolution was driven by religious extremists. This is completely false.

Indeed, it seems like almost every single Iranian in the movie is yelling and screaming. That is fine for a comedy bit - Jon Stewart does a good one. However, for the entire movie? Seriously? Even the scene in the market devolves into a screaming match. I understand Iran had some very angry people in 1979, but Argo makes it seem like every Iranian wanted Western blood. This is not true at all. They weren't exactly happy with America - and can you blame them? We took away their democracy and gave them a brutal dictator who we supplied with weapons, trained his brutal secret police, and backed at all times instead of trying to force negotiations with the opposition. However, that displeasure was not blood lust, at least amongst most of the population, something Argo doesn't really illustrate well.

This is a common Hollywood problem. Instead of getting a little of the nuance right re: the Muslim world, they opt for the easy stereotype. Yes, there is no doubt many of the people in Iran in 1979 resembled those in Argo...but most didn't. Yes, many Iranians were angry with America...but there were pretty good reasons to be angry, which aren't really dealt with adequately in the film.

Granted, Affleck is trying to tell a story of the rescue of the 6 Americans who escaped the embassy, so it is a little unfair to be so critical about what he doesn't do. And...unlike most in Hollywood, he does make an effort to give some context. However, he gives you enough to think for a second, but then leaves just enough holes that you get so subsumed in the movie that you forget the context in the first place. In Argo, lets be very clear...the Iranians are the bad guys...and like almost every Iranian. The Americans and Canadians are the heroes. There is no subtlety about it. By the end, you have no recollection why the Iranians were revolting (mostly because you weren't told enough in the beginning, anyway), but you want them to lose badly. And Ben Affleck knows better...which is why this is so disappointing.

Affleck has been involved in many progressive causes over the years. As noted earlier, he was good friends with Howard Zinn, a man who understood the importance of deeper readings in history (see below video). Most importantly, he knows what's going on right now with Iran. Tensions are high, and many want America to go to war with Iran. This film, with its minimal context and simplistic good guys vs. bad guys story doesn't help in that regard.

The real issue might be that so few Americans know anything about the US-Iran relationship from the early 1950s through the revolution. The media hasn't really done a good job (the mainstream press has basically done nothing that I can recall) that illustrates the dynamics of the relationship. Operation Ajax and Mossadegh are words very few Americans know, even though they are critical in understanding what is happening there now. Did you know that the US embassy is speculated to have been seized and Americans taken hostage to avoid a repeat of 1953, when Mossadegh's forces sniffed out the coup, but decided not to hold the Americans in jail, only to have them perform the operation again and succeed within days? Of course you didn't. Almost nobody does. As such, yeah, its not Argo's job to provide more background on the complexities of Iran...the news should be doing this. However, when the news isn't doing this, it would be nice if films that deal with the time pick up some of the slack. Argo does a little bit...but, in my opinion, ultimately fails.

Mind you, I write this as a critic of the Islamic Republic. The religious fanatics that have ruled the country since soon after the revolution betrayed the revolution itself. They are not legitimate rulers, and have done little to help the people of Iran over the years. But it is not helpful to make it seem like Iran is those people alone. Indeed, there are plenty of Iranians fighting the regime on different aspects every day. Many Iranian activists and scholars have been documenting this over the years. The Green Revolution in 2009 proved that plenty of Iranians want nothing to do with their current regime. But American intervention, especially given the history in Iran, may not be a good thing, either. A war with Iran would probably force regime critics to unite with them in order to fight the US...again, we took away their democracy and gave them 26 years of authoritarian horror.

Argo is a fine movie on most levels. It is well-written, well-directed, well-acted, and may be an Oscar favorite. It tells a gripping true story, and even attempts to give some context to one of the most important political phenomenon of the last 40 years, the 1979 Iranian Revolution. However, by the end of it, unless you know what actually happened, you come out humming the Team America theme song, hating Iranians, and wondering what their problem was in 1979. And...if you then flip on the news and hear about what's happening today, it won't be hard for you to translate that into support for a new war with Iran. I am certain that was not Affleck's intent...but he fell into the Hollywood trap re: Muslims in films. He didn't provide enough context, gave monolithic angry anti-Western cartoonish characters, and set them up as the bad guys and the Americans as the good guys. A common question we ask in America is: why do they hate us? The real answer is complicated (and hate isn't an accurate word to use) and we rarely are given it. But...perhaps a better question is: why do we hate them? The news doesn't help much, and Hollywood often fans the flames with problematic narratives. With Argo, Affleck had an opportunity to begin a more educated conversation about Iran. That may not be his job or responsibility, but I suspect that was his goal, and I really wish he had succeeded. Unfortunately, he may have done more harm than good. Here's to hoping he can convey a better message on the publicity tour for the movie...because he clearly wants to help, as evidenced in this old clip below.

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