I have to admit that the numerous times I saw the trailer for Ben Affleck’s Argo (too many to count!), I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. I wondered who the hell would want to watch this movie about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis as seen through a Hollywood-CIA covert operation. I tend to enjoy historical movies, but this one just looked so weird, scattered and unsure of its message. After seeing it the other night, I can say that while the movie is indeed a little weird, it is far from scattered. Its message is pretty clear and insidious. In fact, Argo is so un-scattered and linear that it is boring while also being politically dubious.
I checked out the reviews of the film before deciding to watch it. Metacritic turns up with an astonishing number of 100s from all the main press, and Rottentomatoes gives the film a 95% positive rating. I thought that maybe my initial impressions from the trailer were wrong. Given the overwhelming positive responses to the film, maybe Argo really is a good movie. So I went to see it. I should have trusted my initial instincts. As a movie, Argo is a total dud. Besides the fact that it is an exercise in problematic revisionist history, it’s just a crappy movie. I’m fine with using historical material to create a movie that is not wedded to being accurate, but at least the movie should be good, interesting or entertaining. Argo is none of these things. It is a crappy movie with an insidious political agenda. It turns a fascinating “real historical event” into a lousy and tedious screenplay. It is so wedded to its CIA-Hollywood patriotic narrative that the film completely lacks complexity and tension. Its tiresome linear progression mirrors the film’s “Middle of the Road” politics and ultimately left me both bored and bugged at the same time.
The movie is based loosely on real events: Tony Mendez’s account of the historical rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran. “Loosely” certainly is the operative word here. Argo is a piece of cinematic revisionist history if ever there was one. Not only did I find the movie incredibly dull in its exceptionally linear narrative perspective of these historical events, but I was also more than a little annoyed by its historical manipulation.
For me, the only “good” thing about the movie was how it used the cinematic medium to recreate a historical time – 1979. Certainly Affleck’s recreation of history is visually accurate. If you’re interested in indulging in Set Detail and Costume Fetishism, Affleck’s cinematic recreation of 1979 fashions, technology and cars delivers the goods while also delivering six white Americans to safety. The cinematography perfectly mimics the look of late 70s film, and the integration of archival news footage lends a sense of authenticity. But there is only so much entertainment value that can be gleaned from indulging in late 70s fetishism. Once I oohed and ahhed a few times at the haircuts and television sets, I found the movie’s seemingly interminable 120 minutes so boring that I actually fell asleep twice.
The movie starts during the tumultuous riots in Iran when Iranians were demanding that Americans return their deposed Shah (Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī) for prosecution in their own country. The movie is packed with rioting American-hating Iranians with guns, yet the film has no tension whatsoever. Other than a brief history lesson in the beginning of the film and one scene in a public market when an outraged Iranian insists that the diplomats give him a Polaroid photo they shot and mentions that the Shah killed his son, the movie completely neglects to provide the Iranian’s side of the story. The film is a sanitized version of the events. It minimally alludes to the back story of the Iranian revolution but then turns the Iranians into window dressing. They are simply a backdrop that allows the film to tell its patriotic story of the American Hollywood-CIA heroic and covert operation to rescue the diplomats.
Speaking of authenticity, there is nothing authentic about the film’s manipulation of historical events. Its authenticity stops with its haircuts and its use of archival news footage and photographs to give a sense of historical accuracy. Underneath the set details, the burning American flag, and the mirror images from photo archives, Argo really is pure political propaganda. I have some questions to ask here. Why didn’t the Americans just return the Shah to Iran? Why do Americans feel it’s their right to take care of other countries’ business? Why not let the Iranians prosecute their deposed corrupt leader? What’s that old saying about “cleaning up your own backyard before . . .” Also, excuse me in advance if this sounds harsh, but given the vast number of people who have died in the Middle East (Americans, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghanis, etc.), why should we give so much attention to 6 white American diplomats who were saved by Hollywood and the CIA? What about all the other people from so many cultural demographics who have and are continuing to be massacred, murdered and tortured daily?
Needless to say, since it is based on true events, we know the end of the story before going into the movie, and that can take the wind out of a movie’s sails if the film is not done well. But why is it that Hollywood Lefties (Ben Affleck has a clear track record for leaning staunchly to the Left) made a movie about Hollywood joining forces with the CIA to save some diplomats right before the 2012 Presidential election? Why is it that in this film the fact that the hostages were released after Ronald Reagan was elected President and during his inauguration is completely ignored? Why is it that the film ends with the stamp of Jimmy Carter (the Official Voice of American Centrist Democrats) in an actual voiceover narration? And why does it manipulate the delivery of historical information and disregard all the covert financial wheeling and dealing that led to the release of the hostages?
I’ll tell you why. Because Argo, above all else, is a piece of conservative liberal propaganda created by Hollywood to support the Obama administration’s conservative liberal politics as we move toward the Presidential election. In addition, it also primes the war wheels for an American-supported Israeli attack on Iran, so that Leftists can feel okay about the war when they cast their vote for Obama in November.
This leads me to why this movie is one big bore. It’s not a movie at all. It’s exceptionally underhanded political propaganda created by Hollywood to try to win over right leaning war supporters to Obama’s conservative liberal politics while appeasing centrist Leftists (which Hollywood embodies to the max) to feel good about voting for a President who supports war.
Propaganda, as a general rule, does not make good film. So why do so many movie critics love this movie? I seriously don’t know. If they were looking at the film critically, they would have to see it as boring and flawed.
Perhaps it is because movie critics are also part of the movie industry. The movie industry plays a considerable role in the patriotic heroics of this film. In Argo, Hollywood works with the CIA to save the day and the 6 American diplomats. Not surprisingly, Hollywood as an “institution” is the most entertaining part of the film. For the record, the movie industry is played by a tremendously amusing John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Their performances are enormously entertaining. They give us a chance to laugh, and they insert humor into this piece of propaganda as another level of making war comfortable by making it funny. Goodman and Arkin play the movie executives who work with Affleck’s Tony Mendez to create the fake film Argo as a ploy to get the diplomats out of Iran by “casting” them as members of a film team scouting for shooting locations for their science fiction film. The best part of the movie is Goodman and Arkin’s on-going joke “Argo Fuck Yourself.” After digesting the film’s conservative liberal patriotic agenda, I can pretty much say the same thing that Arkin and Goodman say about the movie they star in: “Argo fuck yourself.”
To wrap up the political agenda, the movie ends with Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez returning home to reunite with his family as a hero, a father, and a husband. If you’re going to make a 2012 election year propaganda film, you’ve got to have your family values! Then finally, we get the reassuring “stamp of authenticity” as the film pairs photos of the real diplomats with the actors who played them while Jimmy Carter assures us that there can be peaceful resolutions to international crisis (even if a few thousand people die along the way, ahem). But the movie never talks about those people – all the ones (Iranian and American) who actually did die just because we felt like we needed to clean-up the world’s dirty laundry (so we could keep our American dirty hands in the oil supply).
Personally, I found the movie hard to stomach, not just because it is boring but because it is so ideologically problematic. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no enthusiast for Obama’s centrist Democratic politics, and never have been. However, I do understand how the politics of this country work, so I will be voting for Obama in November. I understand that as much as my ideals would like to believe otherwise, there are only two choices in this America – More and Less Bad. Voting for the Less Bad Democrats is the only way to beat the More Bad Republicans, and I do not want my daughter living in a world where Mitt Romney is President. She has already inherited the nightmare legacy of two Bush administrations. Despite my antipathy toward Obama and his policies, I sure in the fuck hope he does win the election because the alternative makes me puke. But Democrats are not saints by a long shot, despite what movies like Argo make them out to be. Argo is just another piece of Democratic Party Packaging made to win votes by walking a conservative line that somehow attempts to be liberal while also supporting the problematic politics of the conservative liberal agenda. (e.g. It’s okay for Israel to bomb Gaza on a daily basis.)
Am I sorry that I wasted my time and money watching Argo? No, I’m not. Watching a movie like this and thinking about why people like it so much when it’s so wrong is worthwhile. I put my money on this film to win the Best Picture Oscar (even though there is nothing remotely “best” about it) especially if Obama can pull off winning the Presidential election. Since Ben Affleck has made Argo, if Obama does win, Hollywood will be so happy with itself. It can give itself a big pat on the back for helping save the American diplomats back in 1979, for supporting the conservative Democratic agenda, and for helping the Democrats win the 2012 election. Argo may be the most self-congratulatory film Hollywood has ever made, but that does not make it a good film, not by a long shot.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at email@example.com.