Argo: History, Complicity, Intervention & Consequence

Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film Argo raises difficult questions about western interventionism, complicity, and the value of an individual life.

The plot is as follows. In the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, crowds storm the American embassy in Tehran, incited by America’s support of ousted dictator Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his brutal regime. They take most of the embassy staff hostage. But six embassy staff, having taken refuge in the home the Canadian Ambassador, are in far greater danger, out of the world’s gaze, in a country where anti-American feeling has reached fever-point, and where score-settling, lynching and violence have become commonplace.  The CIA, including top ‘exfiltration’ man Tony Mendez (Affleck) attempt a rescue, which involves concocting a fake movie named ‘Argo’, and fake, Canadian identities for the six, as members of the film crew, on location scout.

After a tense journey through the airport, including several skin-of-the-teeth escapes, the six and Mendez finally board their flight out of Iran, cueing tearful celebrations on the plane and back in America. Mendez reunites with his estranged wife and son, receives a medal for his actions, and the film ends with a sense that everything has been set to rights.

Except that clearly it hasn’t. Most of the embassy staff remain hostage, and will for another 360 days. Iranian anger at America and American intervention remains. As, for that matter, does the system of power that allows a powerful nation to manipulate the fate of a smaller one for the sake of its own interests.

Professor Juan Cole draws attention to the Argo’s failure to address American complicity in the deposed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi crimes. He explains how the Shah’s secret police were installed by the US, in cooperation with far-right Iranian soldiery, and how America’s use of Iran as a spy base against the Soviet Union gave it an interest in maintaining the Shah’s regime.

Jian Ghomeshi criticises the film’s ‘deeply troubling portrayal of the Iranian people, who appear almost unanimously as ‘hordes of hysterical, screaming, untrustworthy, irrational, bearded and legal antagonists,’ not one of whom, in Ghomeshi’s view, is represented sympathetically.

I think the film is a little more nuanced than Ghomeshi gives it credit for. During a scene at the bazaar, we encounter a particularly aggressive man, whose anger, it transpires, results from the fact that ‘the Shah killed his son with an American gun’. At other times, the new Iranian authority’s PR statements set out Iranian accusations against American imperialism. But on the whole, Cole and Ghomeshi give fair, reasoned accounts of the film’s inherent tensions, in its depiction of the Iranian people, and its account of Iranian history and America’s involvement.

But what interests me is not what the film omits, in terms of history, complicity and imperialism, but the window it opens onto global systems of power, and of the value that such systems give one life, over and against another – namely: the value of a western life over that of a Muslim, or eastern, life.

One scene in particular seemed to highlight these differences in value. Sahar, the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper, appears later in the film as a refugee, fleeing Iran. She carries few possessions, besides her clothes. Earlier, she demonstrated as much courage as anyone in the film by refusing to give away the identity of the fugitives to an inquiring state officer, and yet where is her rescue mission? Her security? None exist. She is forced to flee her homeland, guiltless of any crime, with no government authority taking an interest in her affairs. It is to the film’s credit it that we are shown her fate; that she is not simply forgotten, amongst the celebration and relief of the Americans’ escape. But in doing so, the film raises difficult questions, about the value of her life, as a non-westerner, compared to the lives of the six embassy staff.

America and Canada’s attempts to save the six embassy staff were laudable. But it is the reality of our world that not all peoples are blessed with the same level of security, and that in general, western, white citizens enjoy more security than those of Islamic, or African, or oriental societies, or of hundreds of indigenous societies around the globe. Furthermore, the causes of this dissonance, this unfair distortion of value are in part the result of American and European action, throughout history. As Professor Cole makes clear, the context of Argo is one of Western complicity in a brutal regime, a cost paid in order to gain advantage over Communist Russia, at the expense of individuals in places like Iran, individuals like the father, whose son was killed by an American gun.

An opinion piece by Mohsin Hamid, a Muslim, a writer and a journalist, accurately summarises the tensions surrounding Western foreign policy and its consequences, intended or otherwise, which can be traced through Argo. Hamid, alongside his generous praise if American values, draws our attention to ‘the accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies,’ and their enormous, devastating consequences. A case in point – Hamid describes how, growing up in Lahore, Pakistan, the city’s relative safety was shattered, due to the appearance of weapons and cheap heroin, by-products of America’s proxy-war against the Soviet Union in neighbouring Afghanistan. The CIA supported the establishment of jihadist training camps in rural Pakistan from which the weapons and heroin (the currency used to buy the Afghan warlords) gradually filtered through to Lahore, sparking a crime wave and ‘putting an end to [Hamid’s] days of pedalling unsupervised through the streets.’

Incidents like these, Hamid writes, form only ‘minor footnotes’ in U.S history, but for the nations affected, they can shape the experience of a generation. The events that form the context for Argo fit within this category – relatively unimportant to the life of an ordinary American; world-shaping for an Iranian. Argo, in my opinion, gives us a valuable window onto this reality, where Western interests, possibly well-intentioned, have bitter consequences, far from Western soil, where the citizens do not enjoy the same protection from violence and turmoil as we, in the West, are privileged to enjoy.

To conclude, I enjoyed Argo, as an intelligent, well-made piece of art. It is to the film’s credit that it engages with this ‘footnote’ in American and British history, and the consequences that were felt in the nation of Iran.  I think the tensions inherent in the film – creating a victorious, triumphant narrative with the rescue of the embassy staff, when the causes of the Iran-America hostility remain unresolved – I think that these raise questions, about systems of power that govern global affairs, and the damage, intended or otherwise, those systems might have. In addition, it raises questions about the value of a western life versus that of a non-western life; whether, on account of her race, religion or skin colour, an individual should not be afforded the security enjoyed by others, citizens of the powerful, privileged west.

The Prestige

Wonder was, for me, the dominant emotion I felt when watching this movie, even the second, third, fourth time. Wonder’ mirroring Angier’s, the foolish, obsessive magician, or Cutter, his wary ingénieur, when presented with the ‘wizard’ Tesla’s machines, and their implications. David Julyan’s score was particularly effective in adding to that effect, its subtle ambience contributing to a texture of awe, of fear, over the strange frightening possibilities presented in screen. (Though for some critics, the score was dull, or merely functional, succeeding in the context of the film but not on its own merit. Not being a film score critic, I’ll avoid sliding into that debate.)

This film raises questions about the nature of magic, wonder, progress, and exploration. It is, in part, a film about a visionary, Nicola Tesla, and the seemingly limitless possibilities afforded by scientific advancement. ‘Nothing is impossible,’ Tesla tells Angiers on their first meeting, when Angiers commissions Tesla to build him his impossible machine. ‘Nothing is impossible… what you ask is merely expensive.’ Or, ‘You are familiar with the phrase, “Man’s reach exceeds his grasp?” It’s a lie. Man’s grasp exceeds his imagination.’

Is ‘wonder’ the result of appreciating the possibilities that exist, or could exist, thanks to modern science? Is The Prestige a science fiction film, dealing with events that, though they are not possible in the real world, can seem otherwise, through the modern narrative of scientific progress?

But the possibilities with which this film deals, the machine it depicts, cannot be explained by or even theorised by any branch of science. It is impossible to duplicate a top-hat, or a cat, or a fully-grown man, and it is hard to imagine this ever changing. Often, the film’s characters refer to Tesla’s machine as ‘magic’, as opposed to science. Is this a film about fantasy, about impossible things that are hidden under the guise of scientific progress?

My question is, why does the impossible, the magical, carry such an allure? Why does it provoke wonder, and awe? Fantasy remains, for me, the primary form – it captures my interest most completely. And sales figures for modern fantasy novels and film would suggest that this is the case for a lot of people. Fantasy provokes wonder, fear, and the thrill of confrontation with something strange, frightening, wonderful. The Prestige, in its depiction of an impossible machine, and its awful consequences, evokes these emotions.

I think I will return to this film, in  a later, longer post. It raises multiple questions, about fantasy, wonder, magic, in which I am particularly interested.  

Shawshank

I saw this movie for the second time, a few days ago. I began with the intention of analysing it – of ‘reading’ it, like a novel, or perhaps more like a poem. Pulling apart its technique, its voices, its tensions, like sifting through your hand through tiny clockwork pieces of machine. Gears. Screw-heads. Wires. Motors. I gave this up, ten minutes in. The narrative is so compelling, even in its minor characters; Tommy, Brooks Hatlen. It seemed to fit together so rightly, in its pacing and movement, its series of small victories; the roof-tanning, the diploma, the empty cell, escape. It was long, longer than I would have expected, but even its side-notes, the scenes that weren’t necessarily part of its main narrative – Andy Dufresne’s descent, transformation of, and escape from Shawshank Prison – even they captivated: other, well-lived rooms in its many-roomed house. Brooks Hatlen’s journey, outside, for example. Red’s similar journey, and its different, hopeful conclusions. Even those.

The first of these, Brooks’ time in the halfway house, in the grocer’s packing bags, in the park looking for Jake, his one-time companion, were for me the film’s most emotive, perplexing scenes. Perhaps, it was the difference in tone, emotionally, between these and the main body of the film. Most of the film’s scenes are triumphant, in its depiction of Dufresne’s victories, over the warden, the gaurds, over Shawshank. Or, they depict the dark, ugly realities of prison life – beatings, assaults, brutality, the closing down of escape-routes, which serve to heighten the catharsis of Dufresne’s series of victories. Such scenes, violent, cruel, or hope-filled and triumphant, operate as an organic whole. Bruce’s scenes seem disconnected, almost. There isn’t a task to be completed, outside. No need to redeem one’s surroundings, as in Shawshank. Bruce Hatlen drifts through ordinary, friendless days, anonymous. His story is the quieter, sadder note in the film’s triumphant movement which, for me, gives it its resonance; its power to stay in the mind long after the film’s close.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this film, yet at least. It seems to work, as one, integrated piece of work. None of its rooms seem any way superfluous, as if they don’t contribute to the effect of the whole.

One more thing: Captain Hadley reminds me of an older, slightly less comic incarnation of Biff, from the Back to the Future Films. It’s the eyes, I think. And the smile.