After many failed attempts to watch Argo, I finally managed to do it last night. I had two main reasons for wanting to watch this particular film, a personal leisure-related one, and an academic/political one. The former had to do with the fact that for the last 10 months or so, I have been going through a period of revisiting thrillers and truly enjoying them; the latter, with the fact that I am committed in political and academic terms with postcolonial issues. Having read some of the reviews of both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, and having skimmed through a few newspapers articles on the controversy caused by Bigelow’s film, I wanted to see how these two films were dealing with discourses on alterity. I still have Zero Dark Thirty as my next filmic target, for now I will deal with Argo.
I came out of the cinema in a two-minds state. On the one hand, it was late, I was tired, and got bored during the film. My leisure-seeking self was very disappointed. On the other hand, my critical self had been lavished with reasons to write about it. The film is decidedly very bland. Despite its implicit claims to unusualness, its plot is more than typical: a quasi hostage situation involving the perpetrators, an evil, fundamentalist, and undemocratic country –in this particular case Iran–, and the victims, good citizens of the foremost bastion of freedom and democracy –in this case as in every other– The United States of America; a white, male, heterosexual, relentless hero; and a happy end.
Perhaps it might be useful to summarize the storyline here. The preamble to the film is a brief recount of historical events that led to the Islamic revolution and the arrival of the Ayathola Khomeini to power. The film starts with scenes of an aggressive mob protesting in front of and pushing its way into the American Embassy in Teheran. They want the US to backtrack in their decision of granting asylum to the Shah and hand him in back to the Iranian government. 52 consular officers are held hostage during 444 days, while six other escape the building and take refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s house. CIA agent Tony Méndez is sent to Iran with a curious exfiltration ploy: the six officers plus Méndez are to pose as a film crew visiting Iran in their looking for ‘exotic’ locations for their sham film. The plot is based on a true story and what I just summarised are the raw facts upon which everyone seems to agree.
The film’s claim to the truth is a main issue. Indeed, it has been a point of debate because apparently the role played by one of the parties involved in the successive solution of the situation –the Canadian Government– has been downplayed while the one played by the CIA has been particularly enhanced. And this is precisely the point: more than a stranger-than-fiction true story, Argo wants to advertise their version of ‘the truth’ and paint the Americans –that is themselves– as the unrivalled heroes. Although the film is not a documentary, one of the cinematic devices used to support their commitment to accuracy in telling the story is powerful. In the preamble, the political context is narrated while drawings and historical photographs are interspersed; in the epilogue, the consular officers portraits, and the photographs of a couple of CIA agents and the Canadian ambassador with his wife, are shown side by side with the portraits and photographs of the actors playing their roles. Additionally, some other photographs are contrasted, notably one of a man being hanged from a crane. The epilogue is a potent final statement telling the viewer to what extent the screenplay was based on historical documents, highlighting accuracy while downplaying fictionality.
Issues of representation are at stake here, and in this sense the film is easily read as a propagandistic narrative of patriotism based on the old ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction that has been relentlessly reinforced since the 9/11 events. It adds to an interminable list of cultural productions trading on Orientalism, that is, on the discourse that has been producing the Orient in politically and ideological terms during the post-Enlightenment era. Thus in Argo, the Iranians are fierce, unreasonable, violent, blindly pious, and utterly ignorant. Furthermore, the scene at the airport, which is clearly an attempt to intensify suspense where there isn’t, completely infantilises and ridicules the Iranians. More annoying, however, is Ben Affleck’s decision to cast himself as the hero, a decision that cannot simply stem from an acute narcissism (also an issue, as attested by the utterly irrelevant scene where he strips off his shirt in front of a mirror), but rather from a want of keeping the ‘us/them’ distinction. The real Tony Méndez is of hispanic origin and looks quite Latino, so given Affleck’s (as director) apparent commitment to accuracy and the film’s claims to the truth pointed out earlier, this choice is curious. For instance, the other actors and actressess are quite similar to the actual people involved in the affair. This was the one opportunity the plot allowed for breaking the ‘we/they’ divide and re-centring the ‘other’ (Méndez is phenotypically closer to Iranians than to the dominant white American hero and as a Latino he is also ‘other’), but rather than taking this opportunity, Affleck resists it.
The film comes at a time when American hegemony is being seriously challenged, and reifying usual dichotomies is a way of restoring it. So, apart from boring and bland, Argo is just another film vehiculating the same recurrent discourse. To borrow Zizek’s way of putting it in his article on Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thrity, this can also be read as another Hollywood’s gift to American power.