Kevin B. Lee was not pleased when "Argo" was nominated as a Best Picture of 2012 and he wrote the following review of the film prior to the awards ceremony when "Argo" took the prize as Best Picture. "Argo" tells the tale of the six (6) hostages who were smuggled out of Tehran in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The film ignores the other 52 US-citizens who spent 444 days as hostages (November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981). Celebrating the rescue of 6 near-hostages and ignoring the 52 hostages left behind for 444 days is akin to calling former major league infielder Willy Miranda "The Sultan of Swat." Miranda had a lifetime (1951-1959) batting average of .221 and hit 6 home runs in his undistinguished career. "Zero Dark Thirty" was a home run worthy of Babe Ruth and "Argo" was the cinematic equivalent of Willy Miranda. If this is (fair & balanced) truth to baseball to celluloid, so be it.
PS: The Senate Intelligence Committee (Oxymoron, anyone?) recently closed its wrong-headed investigation of an "improper relationship" between the CIA and the "ZBT" production team. The failure of "ZBT" to win Best Picture rendered the investigation moot. F--k you, Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain and your "investigation" of "ZBT." What a bipartisan joke.
"Argo," F--k Yourself
By Kevin B. Lee
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Now that Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage drama "Argo" has garnered seven Oscar nominations to add to its mantel, upon which already sit $110 million in domestic box office, near unanimous acclaim from critics, and even a whisper campaign for Affleck to run for John Kerry’s soon-to-be vacated Senate seat, it needs to be said: "Argo" is a fraud.
Sure, "Argo’s" an easily consumable mashup of well-worn genres (exotic adventurer, political caper flick, derelict daddy redemption movie, Hollywood insider satire) whose geopolitical themes make it feel smart and important. One could even say that it’s good at what it does: giving these old Hollywood formulas a fresh coat of vintage 1970s paint (color: avocado). But this tactic is what makes the film not merely overrated, but reprehensible. Its modest achievements point to larger failures both in the film and in Hollywood’s ability to regard the world honestly.
Perhaps my disgust wouldn’t be as intense if it weren’t for the potentially great film suggested by "Argo’s" opening sequence: a history of pre-revolutionary Iran told through eye-catching storyboards. The sequence gives a compelling (if sensationalized) account of how the CIA’s meddling with Iran's government over three decades led to a corrupt and oppressive regime, eventually inciting the 1979 revolution. The sequence even humanizes the Iranian people as victims of these abuses. This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive—because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves.
Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies— still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.
"Argo" makes the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most cataclysmic episodes in U.S. foreign affairs in the last 50 years, a mere backdrop to a silver-lining subplot—one that even Robert Anders, one of the "Argo" hostages, admitted was a “footnote.” The film thus distorts and belittles an event that transformed U.S. history. Ironically, the larger narrative of the hostage crisis would make for a more compelling movie from both a plot and action standpoint: A great filmmaker could make an amazing sequence of Operation Eagle Claw, a failed rescue mission that resulted in two helicopter crashes, several dead U.S. soldiers, and a subsequent overhaul of U.S. military operations. Imagine the last act of "Zero Dark Thirty," but with an unhappy ending.
I’m not naive. I know such a film wouldn’t go over well with the home audience. And I’m not demanding that Hollywood make a movie about Iran as bracing and uncommercial as Jafar Panahi’s "This Is Not a Film," my top movie of 2012 and a true reflection of Iran's reality, using all the resourceful invention that's missing in "Argo." But apologists will argue that a film like "Argo" is the best we could hope for in depicting this episode of history, which makes the film less about history than about our national addiction to happy endings in movies. Argo is ostensibly about how a fake movie saves lives, and thus about the redemptive power of movies at large. But since it’s about a fake movie, it’s not really about moviemaking—it’s about the power of Hollywood bullshit. Instead of a real filmmaker, we get Alan Arkin’s wise-guy hack producer dispensing chestnuts over how to create hype and attention to make it seem like a film is important— lessons "Argo’s" promoters no doubt took to heart. (My favorite "Argo" publicity factoid is that Ben Affleck majored in Middle Eastern studies. No one mentions that he didn’t graduate.) Arkin’s remarks may very well be an accurate insight into how Hollywood really works, but they reflect the movie’s smug complacency over its ability to pull its gilded wool over our eyes.
Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans. We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.
Late in the movie, Affleck’s CIA agent dazzles Iranian soldiers at a checkpoint with storyboards from his fake sci-fi production. The scene plays into the hoary sentiment uttered at every Academy Awards ceremony, one surely to be repeated with each Oscar "Argo" wins: People across the world are movie fans at heart. But like Oscar night, the scene is really a reflection of Hollywood’s hubris in trumpeting its own power. This moment, of course, is more bullshit, a self-serving fantasy concocted by the screenwriter. But it reminds us of "Argo’s" opening sequence, when it was us dazzled into submission by a series of storyboards. A razzle-dazzle con job worthy of its CIA subject, "Argo" thinks of you just like it thinks of those buffoonish Iranian soldiers: too easily impressed with a flimsy fabrication to see beyond it. Ω
[Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, and media activist. Lee was the supervising producer of "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies" in 2011. He received a BA (cum laude) in English Literature and Asian Studies from Williams College.]
Copyright © 2013 The Slate Group Division of the Washington Post Company
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