Zero Dark Thirty is not propaganda. Argo is. Zero Dark Thirty lost the Oscar for Best Picture. Argo won.
Argo is not one of the flag waving, guns and glory cinematic tributes to God and Country of yesteryear. As the American Imperium grows more distant from the real American nation that gave it shape, its justifications have become more sophisticated. Argo is propaganda for America 2.0, Obama’s America, the Empire that will fulfill the founding destiny of the United States by eradicating all authentic nations and traditions from around the world, even if this means destroying itself.
While Zero Dark Thirty began with the deliberate provocation of audio footage from 9/11, Argo gives us a comic book. As Howard Zinn and his People’s History of the United States (and probably the comic book version) is now required reading in government schools, it’s not surprising that the graphic novel style intro checks off the required boxes of apologies for imperialism, Orientalism, and racism. The ancient land of Persia is simultaneously hailed for its ancient culture but condemned for its history of oppression under brutal monarchies. The evil CIA, all white men in suits and ties, overthrow the heroic Mohammed Mosaddegh and install the Shah, who is evil because he wears opulent clothes and has a secret police. His wife even “bathes in milk”! Therefore, when the Shah tries to “Westernize” the country, the masses rise up in righteous rebellion.
The entire Iranian hostage crisis occurs because the United States allowed the dying Shah to receive treatment for cancer in America, and, in the world of Argo, many of the characters are sick about it. As officials run around in the midst of a crisis, actors quickly utter lines like “What did you expect? We helped a guy torture and deball an entire population.” While some government officials grouse that the “Russians wouldn’t put up with this. They’d fucking invade!” and news reports show outraged Americans, Argo marginalizes these reactions. A relatively lengthy news report shows Americans striking an Iranian in front of an embassy. The point is clear – we are just like them. The masses are dumb, xenophobic lunatics who need to be managed carefully.
However, this is all front-loaded in the film, a de rigueur nod to political correctness that allows the remainder of the movie to focus on the fanaticism of the Iranian revolutionaries. It dodges many of the questions raised by other film treatments of terrorism. Zero Dark Thirty admirably confronted the desire for violent revenge and the complicated issues that arise in pursuit of “justice.” Some would suggest that it even hinted at a kinship between Maya and the jihadists, both driven by some inner fanaticism rather than careerism or money.
Argo simplifies it for us. The Americans in the film are victims, passive unfortunates in a world gone mad, paying the price for the sins of their wicked ancestors. The Marines are ordered not to fire to avoid starting a war, an embassy employee who goes outside to “reason” with the crowd ends up with a gun to his head being forced to let the mob in. Later, Marines are subjected to fake executions; after the empty “click” one of them falls to his knees and sobs. This is what Americans want to pretend to be – innocents abroad, not prideful centurions coolly administering their Empire.
Six Americans manage to escape the fall of the embassy and are staying with the Canadian ambassador. The Iranians don’t know – if they find out, the Americans will most likely be executed. Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, an “exfil” expert. As expected, we can check off the boxes of “drinking problem,” “lost family,” and “brusque demeanor” as Mendez tells shocked officials that “Exfils are like abortions. You don’t wanna need one, but when you do, you don’t do it yourself.” Such bluntness seems appropriate seeing as how the State Department’s initial plan is to send them bicycles and road maps. Mendez’s mission is to figure out a better way to smuggle them out of the country.
As a good modern father, Mendez isn’t allowed to see his own son, but he can watch television with him (in separate locations, talking on the phone). While watching Planet of the Apes, Mendez creates his scheme of posing as a Canadian film crew looking to film a science fiction movie in a desert location. His “contact” in Hollywood is Academy Award winning prosthetic maker John Chambers (John Goodman), who recruits (fictional) producer Lester Siegel. Together, the three create a media campaign, production studio, and promotional materials for a science fiction movie called Argo that will never actually be produced.
The plan allows Affleck to make some loving jokes at the industry’s expense. Chambers cracks about Mendez acting like a big shot in Hollywood without doing anything – “you’ll fit right in.” In response to Aflleck’s disquiet with teaching a diplomat to act like a director after a day, Chambers shrugs, “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.” Mendez explains his plan to the incredulous CIA director by saying, “We think everyone knows Hollywood people. And everybody thinks they would shoot during Stalingrad with Pol Pot directing if it would sell tickets.”
Besides the admission that the CIA works with Hollywood, we also see the now casual acknowledgment by Hollywood that Jews own everything. One telling scene about how they operate involves Siegel negotiating with one “Max Klein” to buy the rights to Argo. With many obscenities and insults, one Jew tells the other that his career is over and that more powerful figures are offering him huge amounts of money for the script. Jew #2 calls him a liar, recounts a (fictional) conversation with Warren Beatty, and offers less money than his initial offer. Once he has the script, he can pretend to make a film. The Empire of their Own is an empire of lies, posturing, and corruption.
Fortunately, it all serves Mendez’s purpose. Armed with a script, production, and backing from Washington, Mendez leaves for Iran. Before entering the country, he stops in Istanbul to meet with a contact and make final preparations. The meeting takes place at the Hagia Sophia, as the two spies gaze at a picture of Christ in the converted cathedral and commiserate about their job saving the remnants of “our friend’s fallen dictatorship.” Like some Byzantine captain centuries before, they are officers doing the best they can to prop up a crumbling empire.
Mendez is able to fly into Iran with a fake passport and discuss his film with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The Iranian official sneers at the Westerner’s Orientalism, accusing him of looking for “snake charmers and flying carpets.” Revolutionary Iran is a combination of the worst global junk culture and Islamic fanaticism, as bodies hang from cranes on the streets while peddlers sell trinkets and women covered in robes munch on Kentucky Fried Chicken. Troops with rifles patrol the crowded streets. Mendez is able to negotiate all this and get to the Canadian embassy, where he meets the “houseguests” and presents them with the outlandish plan.
Unfortunately for them, the Iranian government calls Mendez’s bluff and invites the entire team to tour the “bazaar” the next day, accompanied by a government official. The terrified Americans have to pretend to be a film crew while surrounded by people who want to kill them. Even driving a van to the meeting site is fraught with danger, as mobs screaming revolutionary slogans block the path of their vehicle and angrily beat the van as Mendez delicately weaves it through. When they arrive, government spies take pictures of the foreigners and a confrontation erupts between one of the Americans and a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper accuses the “Canadian filmmakers” of being Americans involved with the CIA and an angry crowd gathers. Of course, the irony is he’s absolutely right. The Americans are able to make it back to the embassy, deception intact, but are terrified.
At the same time, the Iranian housekeeper at the Canadian embassy has guessed who the ambassador’s “guests” really are. She is approached by members of the Revolutionary Guard who quote both the Koran . . . and Mossadegh. She lies to them, telling everyone in the embassy is a “friend of Iran.” (What happens to her later is left unanswered.) The soldiers leave, but the Iranian government is watching, and now they have pictures. Meanwhile, the government has children reassembling the shredded documents captured from the embassy, including pictures of the six “missing” employees. As a final blow, Washington DC suddenly decides to cancel the operation, pinning everything on a military rescue operation to take place later. This means that the Hollywood “production” office is called and told to shut down, meaning that there will be no one there if Iranians call to verify the film is real.
Thus (with very little of all this based on the true story), Affleck is able to create a genuinely terrifying final day for the houseguests. Mendez unilaterally decides he is going through with the rescue, presenting his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame) with a fait accompli. O’Donnell comes through to get Mendez’s tickets approved, intimidating underlings, threatening colleagues, and even faking an emergency phone call from the school attended by the children of the White House Chief of Staff. The Revolutionary Guard puts it all together, but are just one step behind Mendez and the houseguests. At the critical moment at the airport when security pulls them aside for future questioning, one of the more hesitant houseguests enthusiastically describes the film in Farsi to skeptical (but enthralled) soldiers. A phone call to the LA office is answered (just in the nick of time) by Chambers, convincing the Iranians the film is real. The plane takes off with gun-toting Revolutionary Guard soldiers just behind them, and there is rejoicing and celebration when alcohol is served in the air, signifying that the Americans have finally escaped Iran.
It’s one cinematic cliché piled upon another, it’s wildly historically inaccurate, and it doesn’t make any sense. (Why wouldn’t the Iranians send fighters to force back the plane? Why wouldn’t the pilot notice that there’s a column of soldiers right next to him pointing guns?) Despite it all – it works. Even though I know how the story ended, I couldn’t help but be on the edge of my seat and admit that whatever one says about Ben Affleck, he knows his craft. This is a simple but suspenseful story, competently done, entertaining to watch. The hostages return home to wild celebration. Mendez gets the Intelligence Medal (as does Chambers) and he even gets his wife and son back.
Nonetheless, as the credits make clear – there is a political motive. Stills from the film are put side by side with news photos from the time, and the actors are portrayed next to pictures of their real life doppelgangers. Despite the fantasy, the film has pretensions to realism. Also, former President Jimmy Carter pays tribute to the mission, explaining how in the end, the hostages were all brought home without violence, and the “integrity of our country” was protected. The efforts of the Canadians to help the American houseguests is still a “model for international cooperation among governments.” There’s a happy ending for peace, cooperation, and global unity.
Unfortunately, Argo gets a lot of the big picture wrong here. Argo has already received criticism for changing many of the crucial details of the movie for dramatic purposes. However, what is truly shocking is the way Argo changes the core realities of what the United States and Canada were doing in response to the hostage crisis. The claim that all the hostages were brought home “without violence” is absurd when one remembers that President Carter authorized the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw, a humiliating failure that killed eight Americans. If it had succeeded, surely many Iranians would have died. Ambassador Ken Taylor is a courageous man and a friend to the United States, but he was not shielding Americans out of humanitarianism. He was in fact spying for U.S. Intelligence the entire hostage crisis, including scouting out military locations for Operation Eagle Claw. It should be noted that it was precisely the charge of serving as “spies” that the Iranians used to justifying holding the embassy team. If anything, they were too restrained – the Canadians were spying too.
What Argo gives us is a friendly face of American Imperium. Americans may have done some things we are not proud of in the Bad Old Days, but relax, that was decades ago! Our military is a humanitarian force and our government means well – it’s just that sometimes we make mistakes. Those mistakes either occur beyond our vision or through a video screen, the death and suffering far removed. Americans are still the forces of enlightenment surrounded by foreign mobs tied down by ancient prejudices like religion, national pride, or the need to avenge the deaths of loved ones. The outraged sense of Iranian honor isn’t something we should take too seriously, any more than we take our own honor too seriously. It’s simply a problem to be managed.
The problem is that exercising power abroad requires bloodshed, death, and suffering. Contra kosher conservatives, America is (and has always been) a center-Left country that would prefer to live with illusions than face hard truths. One of those treasured myths is the idea that Realpolitik is simply something that other peoples do. Even before the end of “isolationism,” the United States has always been an incredibly warlike country that built its North American empire on military victory and territorial expansion. However, rather than offer a defense or even an acknowledgment of America’s “victory culture,” we cling to the old idea that Americans are simply misunderstood. In the minds of our political class, though we make mistakes and are plagued by our own racism, sexism, and all the rest, America was founded on egalitarianism and we continue to strive forward. In the end, that will redeem us. It’s this kind of thinking that allows “community organizer” Barack Obama to administer the most far flung military empire the world has ever seen without progressives being too upset about it.
It’s worth noting that a more instinctual sense of patriotism, built upon a visceral sense of identity and honor, is spat upon in the film, seen as a mirror image of Iranian fanaticism. Instead, decline is seen as a natural thing. Siegel remarks in disgust while watching the news, “John Wayne’s in the ground six months and this is what’s left of America.” Ultimately, this sense of malaise and yearning for national renewal led to the election of Ronald Reagan, who gave the United States an Indian Summer of American patriotism (but whose most lasting historical achievement will probably be the 1986 immigration amnesty). Reagan goes unmentioned in the film, and the Carter Administration is, if not glorified, presented as unjustly suffering for the imperialist sins of America’s past. Argo is one small step towards trying to rehabilitate the foreign policy reputation of a President The Simpsons famously lampooned as “history’s greatest monster.”
The main criticism of the film in the media is that it is not progressive enough. Tony Mendez is part Latino, meaning that Ben Affleck exploited his white privilege rather than casting a Hispanic. For what it’s worth, Tony Mendez himself doesn’t speak Spanish, doesn’t consider himself Hispanic, and saw no problem with the casting, but who cares what he thinks? Color blind casting (remember black Heimdall in Thor?) only goes one way. Kevin Lee over at Slate has accused the film of racism because the Iranians should be the heroes. And walking cliché Max Read over at the tiresome site Gawker took a break from sobbing over the St. Skittles of Civil Rights Trayvon Martin to slam Michelle Obama for awarding the Best Picture award to “CIA Propaganda.” Presumably it would have been better for Michelle Obama to give it to Django Unchained.
Of course, the movie is CIA propaganda, but of a very specific type. The anti-imperialist Left (what remains of it in the age of Obama) never quite understands that the ruling powers of the United States generally support their values. It is a dispute over means and not ends, and ultimately the existence of “antifa” are dependent on a System designed to support Goldman Sachs. The Establishment vision of American foreign policy is defined by aggressively using the hard fist of American power to support post-American ends of global democracy, international finance, and state enforced liberalism. Both old fashioned American nationalists and reflexive anti-Americans miss the point.
Argo is important because whatever its inaccuracies, it is telling us what the System wants us to think about American foreign policy. Even as a superpower, America remains exceptionally innocent. The reality that Empire means killing is safely hidden away, as Last Men don’t like to think about anything to kill or die for. There are still enough conservative useful idiots who will die for the honor of a long dead Republic, but we don’t want to show those people as heroes or their values as positive.
Instead, Argo is about guilt-plagued Americans using roguish (but nonviolent) derring-do to save other regular Americans for humanitarian reasons. The enemies are Muslims who have unfortunately responded to their oppression through the false consciousness of traditional religion. This is the kind of patriotism Hollywood can get beyond, and it’s no wonder – in this film, Hollywood itself is the hero. This is the kind of cultural propaganda that can support an interventionist foreign policy of drones, bombs, and universally applicable values. Best of all, this is the kind of foreign policy that can avoid having to call upon shared sacrifices in the name of national identity, history, or (worst of all) kinship.
Argo is entertaining, it’s exciting, it’s worth renting from the Redbox, and it won Best Picture. But like all products of the Establishment, no one will remember it in a year. It’s hard for something to stand out when you see it every day.
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