There are only two scenes in Argo (2012) where Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) talks to his son. First, the two watch Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) while talking on the phone, giving Mendez the idea for a fake film production. The other is the final shot of the film where he holds his son in a room filled with sci-fi movie toys. As the nature of the events that inspired Argo are shown, we hang on each toy, finalizing a connection between the ideas of truth and narrative, and reinforcing how sympathy ties these two concepts together. Mendez’s son is not, in any way, a focal point of the story. Offhanded mentions of him, as well as these two scenes comprise the entirety of what we know about their relationship. And yet, the film is confident enough in its execution that it feels the need to end with them. If we consider this fact, even momentarily, we quickly realize that this has nothing to do with Mendez’s son. The point is Mendez himself and the idea of his son. The story the film has given us around this relationship is enough to mask the truth of its nonexistence development. As an audience, we have been selectively shown what, and who, to care about.
In a word: manipulated.
This is the art of storytelling. The ability of the artist to create meaning, play with emotions, and mystify a situation that pulls us into fiction. A story, if told well, can convince us of who and what to care about, what the is moral, and how to feel. We all know this, even if we do not stop to consider it frequently. In crafting narratives, we legitimize views, create visibility, and define social norms. A story is a product of its people, and people are a product of the storyteller.
Argo’s dramatization of real historical events allows for an examination of these political implications inherent to storytelling, or art in general. Argo blurs the line between fact and fiction, as most biographical films do, but the focus here is not on what actually happened, rather what the film has chosen to show us. This is a complex affair since the nature of fact is suspect, particularly in a context as multilayer as the Iranian Hostage Crisis. While Argo provides a recap of events prior to the film’s core plot, it makes heavy omissions. Debating the nature of fact for this film, as well as the list of omissions would require its own analysis. Instead, here will discuss how the tenants of filmmaking have created themes of narrative as power, sympathy and truth, and whether these elements have been skewed to justify islamophobia. Our question is simple: Is Argo islamophobic and does that matter? The answer to this question sheds light on the politic nature of art, as well as art as the manipulation of people.
Argo on Narrative
Argo opens with a story recapping the events that led to the Iranian Revolution. From there, we’re introduced to the Iranian Embassy that the citizens take over. However, before they can gain access, the Americas attempt to shred all confidential information. In the panic, six people find a way to escape into the house of the Canadian Ambassador. As the hostage situation escalates over several weeks, we meet Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration expert. The U.S. government gives us several scenarios that might help gain them access to Iran and retrieve the six citizens and Tony’s initial purpose is to listen to these proposals and judge whether or not these narratives are strong enough to work. When teachers, and biking, and crop-inspection covers fail, Tony talks to his son on the phone while they watch Battle for the Planet of the Apes. This inspires him to come up with a plan to retrieve these people under the guise of a fake film production that’ll capitalize on the late 70s, early 80s crazy for Science Fiction adventure films like Star Wars.
This initial setup creates a constant invocation of narrative, and particularly identity through narrative. The recap in the opening is itself a story and creates the context under which the story needs to be viewed. The omissions and emphasis of certain events create the assumed narrative that Argo wants us to understand. The Americans shredding documents is a way to cover up narratives about themselves. The CIA plans rest on concepts of assumed identities, and narrative covers. Mendez’s objections to each plan is a critique of the believability of each scenario. Crop-Inspectors will not work because right now it’s snowing. Teachers will not work because the school in their location has been closed for eight months. The operation fails if the story the CIA attempts to sell does not manipulate the people to believe certain things. This same pressure is applied later to Mendez’s own plan of the fake film “Argo.” Mendez works with Hollywood producers, makeup artists, story boarders and press to sell the narrative that he is trying to make a film. The idea that Tony and his son connect through watching films over the phone symbolizes the power of narrative that Mendez relies on. Despite no screen time, we care for Mendez as a father. We understand little about his history, but we see the child, we see Battle for the Planet of the Apes, we see him sleeping in his clothes and no one at his home, and we feel for him. Thus, we are manipulated into caring and that consequence of filmmaking on the audience is exactly what the production of “Argo” depends on. As the film progresses, we see more and more reliance on the narrative for survival. Mendez affirms to the six Americans that the only thing between them and a gun to their head is his story. He drills them on their resumes, their assumed identities that support the narrative of the film. And ultimately, it’s reciting the story of the fake film that gets the team out of airport security and into the plane.
Power becomes as simple as the Americans telling the Revolutionaries a story.
The film also frequently cuts between the main story and various news feeds that explain the circumstances. This and the claustrophobic cinematography draw more attention to the idea of narrative. The news feeds are specific, edited, stories of events, and not objective accounts. And even if they were somehow objective, they are inevitably subject to interpretation. Much of the Iranian case is made through the intercutting of the news feeds. Where these feeds are distanced accounts of “fact,” the directing creates closure. it’s the experiences of the characters and the tight shots that confine them that gives us the deeper narrative understanding. When the characters are caught in crowds, in lines at the airport, or simply stuck in the same house for months, we understand the literal material conditions under which they are people for the audience.
The trick this film is able to pull off is that there is very limited use of traditional character arcs. Ultimately, the choices the characters make are simply whether or not they want to go through with the plan, which is not truly a choice. And yet, we empathize with and understand each of their psychologies simply through narratives within the film itself. Early on, we see a profile for each of the six Americans and this is all we really know about them. From here, it’s a matter of seeing how each character is shown in close ups and in crowds, as well as in arguments with each other, that we learn who they are. The characters within the story are viewed under the specific narrative lens of Tony Mendez. And they are told to rely on new narratives of self to ensure their survival. Thus, narrative is their existence.
If Argo must be boiled down to one imperative, it is simply that stories matter. Stories are literally what stand between life and death for the characters. And the power of a story to manipulate, create ideas, and sympathize are what Argo needs in order for it to work as a story itself. Narrative as the core theme allows for the explanation of storytelling as a moral endeavor. What stories are told, what stories are believed and what stories continue to operate are what create visibility for people, as well as epistemic agency. The Iranian revolution’s importance as part of this narrative exists because it is so heavily visible in various media broadcasts. Moral Agency is granted to the American people through this media representation and our sympathies are directly connected to who the media within the film, as well as the film itself, choose to focus on. Thus, the film’s presentation of media can be applied to itself as film media. Given what media produces, why do we believe what we believe? How are we being manipulated through narratives? And what goes unnoticed due to these selective representations?
The Iranian Revolution is depicted as savage, terrifying, and unorganized, all of which has since been proved false through various reviews of the film. As we have stated previously, we are not here to detail a list of inaccuracies in Argo’s understanding (or rather, selective depiction) of events. We shall instead focus on what is depicted given the themes of narrative that underline the story of the film. On Argo’s own terms, how can we interpret the Iranian revolution, the people, and who to sympathize with?
Iranians are depicted in one of three ways: sympathetic to the West, enraged mobs, or authoritarian others. The western sympathy is personified in the Canadian housekeeper. Though she appears sparingly; the focus is on a simple political statement: is she with us or against us? She comments that the six Americans, who are under the guise of Canadian guests in the country, have been here for a long time and never leave the house. The tension is then centered on whether or not she will betray them to the Iranian government. When the time comes, a military officer arrives at the gate and she keeps her silence. In this exaggeration, we also depict the Iranians as deeply religious, as if one who sides with the Iranians must also be Muslim, and that identity is a dominate force in all Iranian culture, always. Conveniently, the Western world is depicted as entirely secular. At the end of the film, the only assurance we have for the people of Iran is that the housekeeper is granted refuge in Iraq. In addition to the housekeeper, we have small conversations with political officials like the Minister of Culture that play along with Mendez’s plan and serve no other purpose on a character level.
Second, Iranians are depicted as large, collectives; unruly mobs that terrify and intimated. From our very first scene in Iran, we are greeted with hordes of anger, gun-wielding disorder. Twice when the six Americans, accompanied by Mendez, travel outside of the Canadian home, they are attacked. The first time is in a van where a chanting crowd pounds on the van in untranslated anger. The second is when a shop-owner demands a picture, which was taken without permission, back that degenerates into a hostile us vs them scene of claustrophobic anxiety. In every instance of Iranian people or culture that the film depicts, it is done so from a perspective intended to insight fear and confusion.
Finally, the film depicts Iranians as authoritarian others. While at the airport, house gate or in conversation among themselves, the film selectively translates Farsi. The intention is that we only see translations when 1) it’s absolutely required to understand a plot point, or 2) when a translator is present so that we understand this as a cultural barrier. This creates both sympathy for the characters we are meant to root for, and immersion since, even on an experiential level, we are completely with our central characters and no one else. This standard technique takes on new meaning when applied here, showcasing the Iranians as completely alien. Their otherness puts us on guard and creates tension.
They are not us.
We do not understand them.
Additionally, this language barrier is used as an intimidation tactic by the Iranians. We see large, bearded mean yelling in a language we do not understand for reasons that are never explored to the central characters, with the intention of creating fear. The Iranians stand as authority figures intended to create sympathy for the Americans, and are therefore never treated as characters (or even people) in themselves unless they directly aid the Americans.
The focus here is on creating a narrative of sympathy for the hostages. From the perspective of Affleck as a director, he has a small group of characters that function as a McGuffin. Rather than elongate the story, the techniques of fear, claustrophobia and otherness are utilized to create emotional investment for the audience. We may not know these people, but we understand what they fear and that economically gives life to the narrative of who they are and what their function is. From a filmmaking perspective, this is a strong movie to keep the attention on what thematically matters and maintain the control of Mendez as the main character. Yet, this is done at the expense of the people it marginalizes into stereotypical fearmongering.
Argo opens and closes with an image of the American Flag.
Figure 1: Argo (2012) American Flag bookends.
The implications are rather striking and not necessarily subtle. Revolutionary Iran is an anti-American, and dangerous conflict zone. When we end the film, we completely ignore the nature of the Iranian conflict, and instead welcome a victory for the United States people as they were able to survive several months in hell. The perspective is unavoidable skewed in favor of American interest. Given the film’s thematic exploration of how narrative operates, we can understand the semiological system created around its depiction of Iranians as inherently xenophobic.
We are left with dramatic considerations about the very nature of art. Art is political, and whether or not we choose to focus on that element when engaging with it does not remove this inherent quality. Argo depends on the political power of art in terms of its plot, as well as placing it as the cornerstone of its themes. Thus, we can now question the value of art on a moral level: Why does Argo’s depiction of Iran matter? This also implies the question: what makes for good art? Can one appreciate Argo as a well-made film even if we critique its political impact on Iranians? Such a question goes beyond the scope of what I wish to consider right now. However, it is a worthwhile question that people like Berys Gaut raise, particularly in relation to Nazi propaganda films.
Argo’s political narrative can be seen as a manifestation of American propaganda as a consequence of post-9/11 fears, an extension of the zeitgeist of the War on Terror. When we look at politics on its most basic distinctions, we discover it focuses on us vs them. Every political action, policy and discussion rests on the considerations of our relationships to others and to whom we are willing to extend agency. Who are we and who are they? More complex discourse takes this to more complex distinctions, but fundamentally, the political is a narrow segment of ethics concerned with maintaining our relative identity distinctions. Art, as it is created in a world of politics, presents the norms of the society it is produced in. It is then a political tool to reproduce the political ideology that it reflects.
If we look at a film as a system of manipulation like all art, we see that it can very easily extended its powers past the initial experience of viewing it. People who are manipulated into caring for a fictional character or idea now carry that sympathy or idea with them. Empathy for literature creates empathy for people. Thus, fear or anxiety for a group in a film replicates that association with people. Art creates visibility for issues and thus, Argo’s marginalization of Iranians channels the Islamophobic narrative of post 9/11 America. Its Iranian narrative is at its core the same kind of deception that Mendez utilized with the fake film production. Whether Argo intends it or not, it is a political message of sympathetic pro-American narrative.
Ultimately, much of this can be further unpacked to discuss ideas of the moral obligations of art, artistic quality and art as ideology. All of which have a rich history in aesthetics and critical theory. However, I wish to conclude this piece here to demonstrate the lingering questions and power of the author to control you long after your engagement with a piece ends. Argo is not the first film to create pro-American narratives as the expense of the oppressed, nor is it the last. However, Argo provide an interesting case study on the basis of its own themes. Does Argo know what it has done in a way American Sniper can never hope to? That, I leave to further discussion in the future.
 Numerous sources have discussed these issues: See http://www.islamophobiatoday.com/2012/10/24/pouya-alimagham-ben-afflecks-argo-and-the-problem-with-viewing-iran-through-a-narrow-lens/ and http://www.juancole.com/2013/02/orientalism-upsets-iranians.html
 See Gaut’s “Ethical Criticism of Art” and Art, Emotion, and Ethics.
 See Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political
 See Kidd and Castano’s “Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing.”