Back around the time of my first transplant, toward the end of law school and the beginning of my post-law life, I spent a few years working on a novel that centered around the Iranian Hostage Crisis. I read many many books on Iran and US-Iran relations and the 1970s and Jimmy Carter and the Hostage Crisis. I feel like I know a lot about the subject. And I still hope to write that novel one day so I’m not going to reveal too much about it but I can say it proved to be too ambitious for me at that time.
I still tinker with the idea and given all the energy I’ve put into my Iran novel over the years, I was eager to see Argo. I wanted to like it and I did in some ways but was disappointed in others.
What I think Affleck did well:
1. As illustrated by the photos at the end of the movie, Affleck obviously took great care to be accurate in some respects. The U.S. Embassy compound in the film looked to be meticulously modeled after the real compound. And the actors playing the various characters looked very similar to the real people. This was distracting in the case of one mustache in particular. How accurate is too accurate? At what point do hair & clothing styles become mockeries of themselves despite being completely accurate? Should a filmmaker subtly dull them to make them palatable to a modern audience? And is it important to have actors who look like the real people, aside from historical figures like Hamilton Jordan perhaps?
2. Along the same lines, I thought Affleck did a good job of portraying some of the events of the hostage crisis, like the mock executions and the reconstruction of classified documents and the portrayal of Sister Mary (the nickname of the Iranian woman who acted as the spokesperson for the hostage-takers). And I think he did an excellent job of the nearly impossible, recreating the day of the takeover.
3. I liked the introduction in which Affleck gave an overview of US-Iranian relations and highlighted the English and American led 1953 coup that overthrew democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed the repressive Shah. Where would Iran be today if we had not overthrown Mosaddegh? Where would the Middle East be today if there had been a democratically-inclined Iran since 1951? We executed that coup for what became British Petroleum, which Mosaddegh had nationalized in Iran. As usual, our short-term foreign policy aims had disastrous long-term consequences. Remember that until the recent Arab Spring the conventional wisdom about the Middle East was that democracy would not work there.
4. The scenery of Tehran in the movie was awesome (with mountains very like Colorado’s Front Range) and prominent city sites, like Azadi Square, were fun to see. I assume they were all done with computer graphics (or some other stand-in mountains) since the movie was not filmed in Iran.
Where I think Affleck failed:
1. Overemphasizing the American and CIA role. It’s frustrating that Hollywood continues to believe we are so narrow-minded that everything must be spun to maximize the United States. Jimmy Carter has said the rescue of the Houseguests was 90% Canadian and 10% American. This was a Canadian moment of glory and it’s annoying that we’re trying to hijack it because we are so parochial. That’s not a good way to thank our good and brave neighbor.
2. The ridiculous chase scene at the end. Is this a realistic thriller or a caper movie? This goes to a deeper issue Hollywood encounters with all historical fiction and really all fact-based stories. There is a false assumption that Hollywood must embellish truth to make it interesting and/or entertaining. Not true. History supplies plenty of intrigue. But effort must be exerted to portray it. The problem is with lazy screenwriters and directors who fail to create the tension needed without wacky Revolutionary Guard chase scenes on the tarmac. There was plenty of danger in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Affleck did not do a good job of corralling it. He had moments, like the hanging man. But he needed more than the occasional hanging man or burning truck. People were getting taken outside and shot for little reason every day. There were roving mobs of revolutionary thugs. It was anarchy. There was talk of all this in the movie and even some images but we needed to feel it. We needed at least one extended scene where one of the characters saw this all happening.
3. As I said above, Affleck faced a nearly impossible task in attempting to recreate the drama and feel of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. But people have pulled have such feats. The best movie I can think of along these lines was Missing with Jack Lemmon. Lemmon plays the father of an American journalist who has disappeared in the Chilean coup of 1973. And as we follow Lemmon around Chile as he traces the last days of his son’s life we feel the danger of the times. That movie was drenched in what was missing, the rule of law. There was a grit and danger in Missing that Affleck failed to match in his Tehran. The one exception was that moment in the bazaar with all the yelling. Affleck can do gritty, like the neighborhood in Gone Baby Gone. But he wasn’t able to do it in Argo.
To be fair, the Islamic Revolution and the Iranian Hostage Crisis are complicated subjects that cannot easily be portrayed in a two hour movie. Add in the fact that Iran is a unique culture in world history. In a way, Affleck tried to do too much. He did try to mention everything. And I think he was not quite sure what kind of movie he wanted. Was it a Soderbergh farce like The Informant? Or was it a serious drama like Missing? It tried to be both as it switched back and forth between Hollywood and Tehran. The tone of the film was inconsistent and the shifts were jarring.
The Iranian Hostage Crisis is full of great stories. I’m sure more movies will be made about it and Argo, despite its flaws, is the gold standard for now. I tip my cap to Affleck for taking on a monumental task and nearly pulling it off.