Argo, Neglect, and Giving the People What They Want
At Slate, critic Kevin B. Lee has a brutal takedown of Ben Affleck’s Argo, yesterday’s winner of the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama. Unfortunately, the review quickly descends into self-parody. Lee’s main problem with the films is its focuses on the “Canadian Caper” chapter of the hostage crisis, rather than the US history of meddling in pre-revolutionary Iran — in short, his complain is that it isn’t another film.
“Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran,” Lee complains, “the film settles into a retrograde ‘white Americans in peril’ storyline.” Yes, that is literally the plot: Americans, regardless of the country they represented’s previous crimes in Iran, were in peril. There are many historically-inspired films that deserve criticism for needlessly highlighting the experience of white people — The Last Samurai, to name a particularly egregious example — but Argo isn’t one of them. Criticism that the film doesn’t focus on the experience of Iranians is misplaced because, strictly speaking, it isn’t a story about Iranians at all. Instead, it’s a story about Americans in Iran that for plot expediency reduces Iranians to mostly antagonists. Again, given the film’s historical inspiration, this isn’t in and of itself problematic. That isn’t to say that the stories of Iranians don’t deserve to be told, but the dramatic experience of American hostages isn’t invalidated by this neglect in American cinema.
Complaints about “zombie-like hordes” aside, Affleck does a reasonably fine job of suggesting that while the abduction of American embassy staff was unjustified, and the fury revolutionary Iran held towards the United States was both real and valid. While this alone is progress, I don’t mean to overstate Argo’s Orientalism-challenging credentials. As J.R. Jones recently remarked, “making an anti-Iranian action flick in Hollywood isn’t exactly a daring act” (via Bahman Kalbasi). Despite its opening chronicling US support for the Shah’s brutality, the film is American comfort cinematic comfort food: wronged American victims, a charismatic hero, and the ultimate triumph of American daring, ingenuity, and showmanship over a foreign menace. Iranians are most often seen, through the eyes of the hostages and their would be rescuers, as menacing threats. But context is everything, and in the context of the narrative, this menace makes sense — the Iranians were menacing, if you had the misfortune to be a hostage!
A more nuanced critique centers less on Argo and more on mainstream American filmmaking’s hesitancy to tell stories unflattering to the US. Lee hints that this is his real complaint:
“Ironically, the larger narrative of the hostage crisis would make for a more compelling movie from both a plot and action standpoint: A great filmmaker could make an amazing sequence of Operation Eagle Claw, a failed rescue mission that resulted in two helicopter crashes, several dead U.S. soldiers, and a subsequent overhaul of U.S. military operations. Imagine the last act of Zero Dark Thirty, but with an unhappy ending.”
The problem is this film’s essentially already been made: 1986’s Chuck Norris vehicle The Delta Force.* Of course, The Delta Force isn’t a — how do I say this — strict adaption. While the film opens with the humiliating failure of Operation Eagle Claw it invents a triumphant mirror image of the failed operation, climaxing with Norris’ rescue of American and Israeli hostages in Beirut.
Of course, the point is that while narratives about the cost of US foreign policy may be worth telling, Hollywood is rarely willing to do so, for the simple reason that movies — especially high-budget military blockbusters — are a business. Lee indirectly acknowledges this, admitting that a faithful adaption of Operation Eagle Claw “wouldn’t go over well with the home audience.” Indeed, films that do show US military defeats typically obscure the message somehow. A Bridge Too Far depicts an over-ambitious operation that ends in catastrophe, but in the wider context of American WWII triumph. Black Hawk Down ably depicts the sacrifices of American soldiers, but ignores both the Clinton administration’s strategic confusion that deployed them to Somalia in the first place, as well as the post-Cold War US military’s difficulty fighting low-intensity counterinsurgency wars in foreign cultures. Avatar shows the defeat of rapacious and clearly American-inspired imperialists, but does so in a speculative setting — one not distant enough to prevent conservatives from attacking the film as anti-American.
Films that showcase American victories are inherently more flattering, equally problematic. As Elias Isquith recently wrote in The Atlantic, Hollywood as a vision of American ascendency is nothing new. Zero Dark Thirty’s perceived endorsement of torture understates, rather than defies, the type, Isquith writes [disclaimer: I have not seen Zero Dark Thirty]:
“While it may be true that some American viewers will see Zero Dark Thirty and “feel good about themselves,” it’s not true that this represents something new, that it is a ‘sign of the times’… Judged against Frank Capra’s 1942-1945 series of pro-war “documentaries,” Why We Fight—directly commissioned by General George Marshall and soon thereafter championed by President Roosevelt himself—Zero Dark Thirty looks meek if not downright subversive. The times, it turns out, aren’t a-changing.”
Argo depicts an American triumph and makes American audiences ‘feel good’ about their country and the CIA. But it is not a film that refuses to challenge the assumptions of US foreign policy, or descends into jingoism. Lee mocks critics who laud Argo as progressive. But by the low standard of most other American cinema Argo’s suggestion that the US government, though not the hostages themselves, had laid the seeds for the crisis is practically subversive.
American foreign policy would likely pursue a more constructive course if domestic audiences were widely exposed to films illustrating its costs. But complaining that Hollywood doesn’t tell these stories ignores that fact that, for the most part, audiences don’t want to see them.
*Edited to add: I was introduced to The Delta Force in Dr. David Najar’s 2008 class.