The victory of Argo at the Oscars is a major disappointment. The film is not much more than a video game played on the silver screen. It’s Hollywood fast food, pablum served to those who do not want to think much about history, art, or the Middle East. The creators of this film assumed that the audience was ignorant and mindless, and the Academy of Motion Pictures rewarded them for their cynical manipulations.
The film is historical flimflam. So many of the basic, asserted facts in the film are simply untrue: In reality everything went smoothly at the Tehran airport with no problems from Iranian security or customs; there was no airport chase; there was never a cancellation of the mission at the last minute; there was no location scouting in Tehran; the escapees were not in one house, but two; the escapees did in fact have access to the outdoors; there was no film producer played by Alan Arkin; the film vastly overstates the role of the CIA and vastly understates the Canadian component of the effort (which was in fact primary); the British and New Zealand embassies did not turn away the Americans, but helped them in many ways; and Ben Affleck resembles Latino Antonio Mendes about as accurately as Bible paintings that depict the historical Jesus as blond and blue-eyed.
The lack of historical accuracy is galling given that Steven Spielberg made every effort to adhere to veracity when he directed the epic film, Lincoln. Even more important, we are dealing right now with real, live Iranians and Muslims in the Middle East. Producing a film that distorts history and outright lies destroys American credibility and makes us look almost as manipulative and hateful as some of the leaders in the Iranian government. How do we criticize Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, for denying the Holocaust, when an Oscar-winning American film fabricates historical events in Iran out of thin air?
Iran has an ancient history, a rich culture, and a sophisticated, intelligent population. Yet, the film not only depicts Iranians as cartoonish caricatures, but also creates the impression of Iran as a giant, throbbing blob-like mob of dark, olive-skinned paranoid idiots. It reeks of Islamophobia, indulges in classic stereotypes about the Middle East and Iran, and belittles others whom we do not understand. Not only is this morally wrong, but it also harms our capacity as a society to figure out how to deal with a nation that has enormous influence over our strategic interests and is threatening to obliterate Israel with a nuclear weapon.
The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has done many hideous things: torturing and murdering political dissidents, arresting and humiliating political opponents, suppressing freedom of speech and the press, persecuting and murdering Bahais and gays, discriminating against other minorities, preventing free elections, spying on its own people, imprisoning US diplomats, engaging in global, state-sponsored terrorism, denying the holocaust, and threatening to annihilate Israel with a nuclear weapon. There is plenty to criticize here. Why would a film misstate the facts about the hostage episode and depict most Iranians as stupid, ignorant? Doing so does nothing to help anyone and seriously impairs the credibility of those trying to stop the Iranian government from engaging in nuclear terror.
Yes, Argo is a fun film to watch. It’s exciting, fast-paced, and keeps viewers hooked for every moment of the film. But the world is not a video game, nor are people stick-figure cutouts. And, no matter what postmodern academic critics (and also apparently Hollywood directors and writers) claim, events really do happen in ways that historians and journalists can often verify. Indeed, while interpretation is enormously multifaceted and complex, we do not live in a world where facts are irrelevant and non-existent.
Maybe the film would not have garnered this kind of attention, but a film that adhered to the basic facts, focused on a story that was nuanced and subtle, and developed characters that felt authentic and genuine would have been moving, transcendent, and actually added something meaningful to our increasingly disintegrating world. Unfortunately, Argo does the opposite.