Argo: Hollywood as extension of CIA propaganda
How Hollywood has played a dirty role in the smuggling of American spies from Iran during the early years of the Islamic revolution. The latest movie shows the tight relationship between the CIA and Hollywood.
Staff writers Zainab Cheema and Maksud Djavadov review the recently released Hollywood film, Argo, based on an account by CIA operative Tony Mendez.
The presidential season is moving apace, so sluggishly that even robo-Romney, the personality-challenged Republican candidate, is outshining the hapless Barack Obama. It is times like these when Hollywood must step in to ramp up the drama and adrenaline — the result is Pentagon-funded Argo, the movie adaptation of the memoir published by ex-CIA operative Tony Mendez on the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.
After leaving the CIA, Mendez has transitioned to the role of a writer — his best-selling “non-fiction” books about his CIA adventures fuels the US public’s fascination for Jason Bourne-style dramatics and earns him a tidy income to supply his haute-rural lifestyle in Maryland. He has written three books of his capers in the CIA, hailed to be “landmark memoirs” by the former Chairman of the CIA’s Publications Review Board, John Hollister Hedley. The full title of his third book is Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History. It describes how he (singlehandedly?) rescued six US embassy workers who had escaped into the street after Iranians took over the US embassy demanding that the US extradite the Shah to face trial for his crimes.
Argo begins with a scene of Mendez sprawled across a motel bed, unkempt and surrounded by boxes of Chinese take-out. We are introduced to him as a down-on-his-luck CIA officer, held at arms-length by the spy agency and also separated from his wife (for reasons not explained, though we infer a psychological crisis on his part). The film then switches to depictions of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the six embassy workers, represented as heroic, but average US citizens caught in a maelstrom of terror and repression. Close-ups of their fear-stricken faces alternate with shots of the comforts of wine and food they enjoyed at the Canadian embassy in Tehran, where they are given refuge by the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor.
Mendez is pulled in by the CIA bosses to hatch a plan to pull them out — the intrepid spy hits on the idea of using Hollywood as a cover, pulling in makeup artist John Chambers and the worldly Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (fictional character) to promote a fake-movie. The movie is Argo, a science fiction plot sporting generic Middle Eastern bazaar and desert scenes (think Star Wars, Episode IV). Mendez then approves the film with Iran’s cultural authorities, showing them the proofs of the publicity blitz in magazines and newspapers. He disguises the six embassy workers as film-crew members and spirits them out of Iran.
The timing of Hollywood movies should never be dismissed — case in point is the 1996 alien-invasion flick Independence Day starring Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, which began with a ghostly sequence depicting high-tech alien spaceships incinerating Iraq. We know that the neoconservative cabal that eventually used the Bush administration to launch the long-desired Iraq invasion were formulating their plans in the 1990s from plush offices in the Heritage Foundation. The culture-power nexus is at play once again, as election year 2012 is all about the Muslim East and striking the decisive blow against Iran in order to guarantee Israel’s security forever and ever more.
Argo has enjoyed both box office and critical success — it enjoys a generous budget, as do all films produced by Pentagon, Inc. (the 2008 Hurt Locker, and even the Transformers series, which borrowed advanced military technology from the Pentagon in return for slams at the Chinese and Japanese tech-manufacturing upstarts). Argo is directed by Ben Affleck, the charismatic 1997 Good Will Hunting actor who first entranced audiences when he appeared in that film with best friend Matt Damon. Affleck’s acting career as a romantic leading man is over (he is pushing 40 and has painstakingly grown back his hair after a bout with midlife baldness). Now, he’s in the business as a director of “serious,” “gritty” films like Argo and 2010’s The Town, while ensuring excellent publicity for his movies by flashing his dimples and sculpted body on the red carpet.
In its prelude, Argo uses caricature and drawing to explain how the US and Britain overthrew Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh after he nationalized the oil industry, and installed puppet Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi back in power. Despite the handsome admission, the film makes it clear that Iran is a violent theocracy peopled by religious extremists. Just as the war on Iraq was justified by propaganda painting Saddam Hussein as an evil villain with weapons of mass destruction, Argo is selling the US’ (eventual) war on Iran by assuring the audience that military intervention and whole-scale destruction of the country is excused because they are a “violent,” “intolerant people” subscribing to Islam.
Argo is then Pentagon Inc.’s memorializing of the Iranian hostage crisis, by an actor-director once known for his leftist credentials (Affleck was once a student of Howard Zinn’s at Harvard University). The movie is intended to be fictionalized “true history” — it painstakingly tries to craft versimilitude in how it depicts the 1979 Islamic Revolution by recreating some of the propaganda photographs spread through US media at the time in order to vilify Iran as a barbarous theocracy. In the ending credits, the film even shows a quick montage juxtaposing filmed scenes with the actual black and white photos — the message is that the film is realistically representing historical events. That is, even though Argo is about “us” rescuing “our people” from “those bad Muslims,” there is absolutely no propaganda involved.
Thus, we are given shots of Muslim women draped in long black chadors driving by in jeeps holding automatic weapons; we are meant to connect the dots and recall the draped suicide bombers that once threatened Israel. We are also shown scenes of suited men hanging from cranes or pulled from their homes and shot in the streets — with no contextual information of the cases involved, who was responsible for the killing (given the in-fighting that erupted between different factions after the fall of the Shah), or even the background of the men who were killed (whether they were in fact involved in espionage on behalf of the US). They are merely bits of data made to conform to the US propaganda line.
The six embassy workers, however, are painstakingly represented as human and vulnerable. Four of them are married to each other, which Argo highlights to show them as three-dimensional humans caught within a mob of Muslim terrorists. While it is true that some embassy workers are nothing more than clerks, US embassies are never neutral territories — they can be tied to espionage and counter-culture objectives against the host country, a fact which the Bourne Identity series showed with far greater realism. At the end, we learn that all six embassy workers end up rejoining the foreign service, which leads us to question whether they were average civilians who just happened to be working jobs in Iran at the wrong time, or dedicated representatives of US foreign policy.
Argo provides us with the glowing, sympathetic shots of the women, as they attempt to soothe their jittery husbands, underscoring that the film is not only pro-Pentagon Inc., it borders on fascist romanticization of the family. In fact, Argo is remarkably conservative, glamorizing women as supportive wives and mothers, the supine helpmates of their male counterparts. In a scene where Affleck drives the van with the embassy workers to Tehran airport, we are given plenty of shots of trembling lips and the sort of distressed, feminine anxiety that simply begs for chivalry from the audience. As Argo is also concerned with Affleck’s development as super-spy warrior, we see him at the end return to his spouse — the blond, idealized Nordic housewife who receives him with tears and open arms (and nary a shrewish reproach). The film closes on a shot of Affleck peacefully sleeping with his son surrounded by science fiction figurines, a sense of peace prevailing with the Anglo-Saxon family unit having been restored.
Respecting the rescue, Argo gives us a look into the bureaucratic politics of the CIA, as the spooks consider various proposals on how to extract the embassy workers from Iran. With the stoic Ben Affleck flanked by charismatic TV actors like Bryan Cranston and Kyle Chandler, we are meant to see the CIA as any other US corporation — except that this one is peopled with super patriots who exchange the opportunity of public glory for the gritty determination of getting the job done.
In the end, after Affleck has successfully rescued the embassy workers, he is informed by his boss Bryan Cranston that the CIA is going to award him the Intelligence Star, which will then be taken away because this mission is classified. “If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus,” Cranston exclaims nobly. Argo operates as a mode of PR, erasing the sordid histories of rendition and torture made public by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and WikiLeaks, replacing them with patriotic do-gooders.
However, Argo is informative, in the sense that it candidly highlights the relationship between Hollywood and Pentagon Inc. as symbiosis that has only become closer over the years. The film deconstructs Hollywood’s status as an independent cultural force, showing it as a culture industry attached to the military-industrial complex. After the CIA (tentatively) green-lights Affleck’s plan, he flies out to California where he works with makeup artist John Chambers and Hollywood mogul Lester Siegel to publicize the fake movie, in order to make them more believable to the Iranian authorities. Lester Siegel (implied but never directly stated to be Jewish) initially hesitates to join what seems like a troublesome project, until he sees the faces of the embassy workers on TV. Moved, he signs onto the initiative, reifying the Samuel Huntington view of the world — chivalric Judeo-Christian civilization pitted against the intolerant, evil Muslims.
It is impossible to ignore Argo’s treatment of Iranians and how they have been visibly Talibanized in the film. That is, Argo’s bearded, unkempt, violent members of the Iranian government and revolutionary corps seem remarkably similar to the way the US media represents Afghanistan’s Taliban — savages devoid of politesse. The film shows zero cultural intelligence toward Iranian culture and civilization, which only predates the United States by about 6,000 years. Or for that matter toward the Afghan civilization, which boasted an impressive material culture that has since been destroyed by the Cold War and Pentagon Inc.’s social engineering of militias.
Argo infantilizes the Iranians, evident in the scene toward the end of the movie, when the Americans are asked to step out of the line for boarding Swiss Air in order to undergo questioning. The embassy workers explain the story of the (fake) film, showing the concept drawings — the primitive, bearded guards are shown to be childishly delighted, swallowing the ruse entirely. The scene pitches to the audience the sophistication and glamour of US culture, which can bamboozle even the most hardline opponents.
The only exception to Iran’s mentally-challenged corps are the Revolutionary Guards, who Affleck explains are intelligent and fearsome, because they have all been educated in the US. In short, the urbane guards speaking perfect English are the “exception” to the ignorant, violence-prone Muslim, because they enjoy US educations — for how can civilization be attributed to anything outside of the Anglo-American axis? Argo of course generalizes, for while Shaheed Mustafa Chamran was known to have received his PhD in the US, there is no such information respecting the other members of the Revolutionary Guard.
Also notable is the film’s voluptuous fetish for alcohol, which becomes a symbol for the US secular progressiveness compared to Iran’s theocratic puritanism. Scenes abound of characters drinking gleaming glasses of wine and spirits, and at the end, when the embassy workers are aboard Swiss Air, Argo trumpets the success of the caper by the air stewardess’ announcement, “Congratulations ladies and gentlemen, we have left Iranian airspace and you are now free to drink alcohol.” Wine is not simply wine here but a cultural weapon — a form of rhetoric that Muslims should learn how to counter through their own culture industry and movie production companies.
Argo is slated to be nominated for the Academy Awards, which Ben Affleck is promoting through his numerous talk-show/red carpet appearances and through photo-ops with his charming family in New York, Santa Monica, and Paris. The CIA and Pentagon Inc. is now much more blatant about culture war as part and parcel about its obsessive crusade against Iran and Islam. The time for subtleties in war and discourse is now long past, as made evident by the accolades heaped on a B-value, home entertainment movie.