Monday, October 15, 2012

Movie: Argo

a/k/a: Good movie, true story (mostly), but I think some of the audience missed a few salient points

I actually started this last night, but I think I over did it at the gym. I was just too tired to keep typing, which is *sad*. Also, I know I'm too tired to write when I start over explaining. As in, the original draft of this tried to explain the entire Iranian Revolution. If you think this version is long, you should have seen the original! So here we go. 

I don't usually go in for movies based off of true stories unless they're historical. As in, 1800's and earlier historical. But Ben Affleck has been doing some good work lately (if you haven't seen The Town, I'm not sure we can keep speaking to one another. Go watch it. Go. Go. It's worth it.) and the previews really caught my interest as well as the interests of my movie buddies. So we broke our usual rule and went to see Argo this weekend.

The basic plot runs like this: In 1979, during the Iranian Revolution, the American embassy is overrun by Iranian students (and some say Islamic militants but I am going to admit to only a general knowledge of these events so I can't call for or against either opinion with any honesty). They take about 50 people hostage (the staff of the embassy) and hold them for more than a year, demanding the return of the ousted Shah, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī who had taken refuge in the US. In the end, all of the hostages were released (though some soldiers were killed in a botched rescue attempt) and Iranian-American relations have been less than friendly ever since.

Most people, I think, know at least that vague outline. What they might not know (as in, I didn't know it until I heard of this movie and started reading a little about it and I assume that the majority of people know about as much as I do because I am the center of the universe...) is that six embassy employees escaped when the embassy was being taken over and hid out in the Canadian ambassador's house until the CIA sent someone in to get them out of the country.

His cover story was that they were a movie production crew scouting 'exotic' locations for a sci-fi movie called 'Argo'. Hence the name of the movie about the fake movie that was thought up between Hollywood and the CIA.

Now before I start, one thing to keep in mind is that this movie is 'based on' a true story. What that translates to is 'we saw a really great story that happened and then we amped up the drama and tension to make it marketable'. Not everything that happens on the screen happened in real life. And I, not having read the book that this is based off of, cannot judge which are which. So what I'm talking about is not the reality of this event, but the movie loosely based on the reality of the event. Got that? Good.

I think we all remember how much I loved Taken 2 last week and it's *super* fair and balanced and *totally* necessary portrayal of Muslims? Yeah. I went into this movie with my major concern being that it was going to out-fail Taken 2 so I was pleasantly surprised when it managed to not do that.

In the opening sequence, the narrator does a brief outlay as to how we get to the point at which the movie itself begins, which is the day that the embassy is overrun. The important point, in my opinion, is that they point out that Mohammed Reza was put into power by a U.S. backed coup that ousted the democratically elected prime minister and forced Mohammed Reza's father off of the throne. And why, you may ask, did the U.S. do this? The film points this out as well, though I have to say that they didn't point it out as harshly as I think it deserved. The U.S. put Mohammed Reza into power because under the previous regime the oil industry was nationalized, removing it from the control of the British and handing it over to the people or Iran. So...yeah. *cough* Our 'interests were affected' to paraphrase our wannabe VP and we stepped in.

Which was really nice for the people of Iran. They went from having some level of autonomy and growth to being crushed under a dictator who lived it up while they starved. His intelligence service, SAVAK, was set up with the aide of the US government and made a habit of torturing and murdering those opposed to the regime.

Not that the US makes a habit of backing dictators or anything as long as they're our 'friends' and supply us with whatever we want from their country. Nope.

Well the Iranian people eventually revolt - the Shah was put into power in 1953, the Iranians didn't revolt until 1979 - and the Shah escapes and is given asylum in the US for medical treatment (supposedly). The Iranians, understandably in my view, wanted him back. For reasons which I don't think really need explaining, but if they do, they weren't inviting him back for a tea party, okay?

The US refused to give him back because, as one character says later in the film, they're protecting him so all the other dictators that they've put into power know that when everything goes to shit we won't leave them to be worked on by some 'goat vet'.

Here's why I liked this, even though I think that the majority of the audience (at least in my theater) missed this point entirely. (I'm guessing this because of a comment or two that I overheard as we were leaving the theater. I won't repeat them due to overwhelming stupidity.) They didn't *have* to include that. Would it have been an historically inaccurate and dishonest movie without that little fact? Yes. But that's never stopped anyone before. After all it's a movie 'based on' true events, which as I said before, gives them license to make a movie that is less than 100% historically accurate. Any complaints could have been met with that argument, or the argument that it is not the job of the film makers to educate the populace on relatively recent historical events. Which is also true, so far as it goes.

We should not allow ourselves to be educated by the media, by which I mean television shows and movies. They're *fiction*. Even news shows have their own biases, their own agendas. Which is not to say that they're all untrustworthy (though some of them are), but that it is the responsibility of every individual to look further than just the soundbites that we are fed. But back to movies. I think that far too many people allow their 'knowledge' of things to be based on fictional accounts of these events. They seem to think that there's some rule about honesty or accuracy that bleeds over into entertainment media. There isn't. If you want to watch a 'movie' about something and have it be (maybe) historically accurate or factual, find a documentary. Even then you aren't guaranteed, just like you aren't guaranteed an unbiased point of view. You aren't even guaranteed an unbiased point of view in history books. For your own sake, if nothing else, take the time and make the effort to look for other perspectives on what you're hearing.

And now back to the movie! Yay tangents!

Apart from the opening sequence there are several small mentions of the U.S. being responsible for certain events that caused the Revolution, or at the very least didn't help the situation any.

Yes, the 'heroes' in the movie are the Americans. That's...kind of inevitable given the makers of the movie and the situation itself. There is apparently some argument between Canadians and Americans as to how much each country did with regards to the extraction, but again, just going off of the movie.

That being said, I think that the population of Iran was portrayed in a far more even way than the people of Turkey were in Taken 2. Yes, there are many instances in the movie that portray Iranians being frightening. A man being dragged out of the house next door to the Canadian ambassador's residence and being shot. Screaming, guns being waved around, the hostage taking itself. A scene where several of the male hostages are taken down to the basement of the embassy, tied up and made to believe that they are going to be shot. It can be a hard thing to watch, especially given the skill with which the movie is made, but as far as I know it's realistic to what was going on in the country at that time.

They do try to offset this portrayal, though, by showing the Iranian people as people. A few minor instances here and there of normal interaction without there being anything sinister between the Americans and Iranians. One that sticks out in my memory is when the Americans are meeting a representative of the Iranian government in the Grand Bazaar in order to 'scout' the location. The man tries to joke and talk with them, but of course they're too nervous to really pull it off. So he comes across as being friendly and helpful and they come across as being abrupt and kind of weird.

One major point is that the Canadians' maid, Sahar, figures out who the 'Canadian' guests really are and not only does she not turn them over, she actively helps to conceal them. Which, of course, puts her life at extreme risk, so much so that she has to flee Iran once the Americans and her Canadian employers are out of the country.

Religion, while present, is not really thrown out as a major factor. Though perhaps that's because they assume that everyone knows Iran is an Islamic country. The only mention that I can recall is in a bit of dialogue between Sahar and one of the Iranian guards. He's trying to lean on her, to make her aware of how important her answer is, and he mentions 'Rasool Allah'. Which I know refers to Mohammed, but I will lay money on the majority of the people watching this movie having no clue what it means.

I don't want to give the impression that I thought this movie was perfect, or a perfect example of how to portray a culture without demonizing it. It's not. But I think it's a step in the right direction, that they made a point of seeding a movie that could have been all about how evil the Iranians are with moments where it's clear that they are human too, and not evil. There could have been more of them, they could have made it better in any number of ways, but for what it was, I am pleased with the movie.

For another perspective on the movie, check out Malik's review here.

And you don't have to worry about getting another long movie rant next week. We're seeing Paranormal Activity 4, so you're safe!

ETA: In a moment of complete travesty, Taken 2 beat Argo at the box office. Excuse me while I go mourn this terrible event.


  1. Loved this! And I enjoyed your challenge for us to get various perspectives instead of the ones fed to us by the media and even history books. I learned more about the Iranian side of things from a couple memoirs by Iranians that I read last year. They were informative in helping me understand the situation better. Thanks for this!

    1. :D It's a very good movie, I think you'd enjoy it. There were absolutely no vampires or zombies. :p

      I think a lot of people have this weird assumption that the news is as unbiased as it says it is. I go with the X-Files approach to reality: trust no one.

  2. Couple of years ago, there was a video clip that went viral in the Arab world about Ben Affleck defending Arabs. He was a guest in Bill Maher show. I don't like Bill Maher because his very demeaning views of religions. Here is the clip

    It was very easy to find on Google :)
    For someone who had said that nice thing about Muslims or Arabs I don't think he will do a bad movie about Muslims. I agree with you that Argo didn't show Muslims in a demeaning way but rather reflected the truth of what was going on during that era. And I really liked the movie.

    When I and my friends reached the cinema last weekend there were two long queses. I assumed that people would be interested to know about this era but strangely, our theater was almost empty. I don't know what was playing in the other theaters. Maybe Taken 2 :)

    Thanks for linking to my rant about American movies :)

    1. I'd never seen that before! Thanks for sharing it. I like Affleck more and more. :)

      A lot of people at our theater were taking their children to see the kids' movies.

  3. I'm glad this movie did better! Taken just isn't my kind of thing, but this one looked very interesting and I liked reading your thoughts on it. I probably still won't see it till it's out on DVD, but it's good to know that it's worth that at least.

    1. It's definitely worth it. :) I'll be adding it to my wish list as soon as it's available. :)


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