(Warning: Spoilers about Argo and Zero Dark Thirty ahead!)
I’m late on this one by a few days, but I wanted to vent about Argo winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Before I get into this, I want to say that I enjoyed Argo. I thought it was an entertaining film that had a great cast and high production values.
Why, then, have a blog post about why it shouldn’t have won? There are a few reasons. The first is that the plot veers so far from the truth that claiming it’s “based on a true story” rubs me the wrong way. Let’s make a list of things in the movie that are true:
1) There was an Iranian revolution in 1979.
2) The Iranians did take a number of hostages from the American embassy.
3) There were a group of workers that escaped the embassy and spent time in a Canadian ambassador’s house.
4) Those 8 people were smuggled out of the country. Their cover story was that they were location scouting for a Star Wars-esque science fiction film.
Those are the only true aspects of the story. The fact of the matter is that the CIA actually had very little to do with the operation. According to then-President Jimmy Carter, the CIA’s value to this operation was about 10%, with Canada providing the other 90%. In other words, Canada did most of the work, yet they were reduced to little more than a footnote in the movie.
Then, you’ve got all the absurd Hollywood twists thrown in to build suspense. This is stuff like the embassy workers being against the movie-crew cover story. Or them nearly getting massacred in a lynch mob in Iran. Or the Iranian soldiers shooting at their plane as it was taking off.
The thing that bothers me most about this movie is the political implications. Salon.com writer Andrew O’Hehir points out in an excellent piece about Argo that the Iranian revolutionaries are vilified throughout the film for doing exactly what the United States did in 1776!
Obviously there were a lot of negative aspects about the Iranian Revolution and I’m sure many tragedies occurred during this tumultuous period. But let’s not forget that one of the primary reasons the Iranian Revolution happened in the first place was that the CIA overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh because he wanted to nationalize the oil industry!
So here’s the chain of events:
1) Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh attempts to nationalize oil industry in Iran.
2) CIA is upset because this means oil prices will go up.
3) CIA and British intelligence agencies stage a coup d’etat, overthrow Mosaddegh.
4) CIA installs Mohammad Reza Shah as leader of Iran.
5) Iranians revolt because of the Shah’s repressive policies and because they’re pissed off at Western involvement in their country (and who could blame them?)
6) Iran becomes a theocracy where the majority of citizens are vehemently anti-US (because of the coup).
7) 30 years later, Hollywood makes a movie celebrating the bravery and ingenuity of the CIA, when they were the same people who created the conditions for the Iranian Revolution!
So in other words, the CIA is being praised for getting American citizens out of a revolution…that was created by the CIA! That’s like praising a guy who set his own house on fire and pulled his son out of the burning building as some type of hero. It’s maddening.
And the thing that really annoys me about the whole situation is that these issues are completely glossed over in the film. Sure, there’s some brief mention at the beginning of the film about how the CIA’s involvement may have led to the revolution. But that obviously doesn’t get brought up ever again, especially as the film descends into a standard Hollywood action movie.
Contrast this with a film like Zero Dark Thirty, which brings up some very controversial issues and then tackles them head on. Now, some (including Senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain) have accused ZDT of bending the truth in the same manner of Argo, particularly on the issue of torture and whether or not the use of “extreme interrogation techniques” led directly to the capture of Osama Bin Laden.
To that I would say that, regardless of how useful it was, torture happened quite often during the zenith of the “War on Terror.” To me though, what’s important is that the film forces the view to confront this ugly issue. In a way, the film implicates the viewer in the widespread use of this ugly technique. There’s a key scene in ZDT where the CIA is having a meeting about how they may have to curtail their interrogation techniques because of the change in administration. “You don’t want to be the last one holding a doggie collar” one agent tells another. On the television in the background, Barack Obama is giving a speech about the inhumanity of torture and how it’s not what the United States stands for.
I think that scene illustrates the key difference between Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Argo is a propaganda film that paints a sterling portrait of the CIA and shows Iran as a brutal place. It justifies the United States position of superiority by painting the Iranians as barbaric and uncivilized. Zero Dark Thirty is not afraid to show that, when it comes to these difficult situations, there are no good guys.