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Saw this at an avant-première a couple of nights ago (it opens in France on Wednesday). The structure of the film is fairly conventional and one knows that it won’t have an unhappy ending—it is a Hollywood movie, after all—, but it’s riveting nonetheless. I was on the edge of my seat almost throughout. It’s a top notch geopolitical thriller. Before seeing the movie I of course knew that it was about the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis but apart from checking Metacritic’s score (86: universal acclaim) and getting the thumbs up from a couple of friends stateside, I pretty much went in to the theater cold. In fact, I thought it was going to be about the fiasco of the failed rescue attempt in April 1980, which it was not. Now I happen to be fairly knowledgeable about modern Iran and closely followed the hostage crisis at the time, but will admit to having no memory of the “Canadian caper”—which is what the pic is about—or of President Clinton’s 1997 revelation of the CIA’s involvement in it (a news story that must have come and gone, and before I had full Internet access). Having seen the movie, I now know. And what a story. The movie is not an entirely faithful reenactment of what happened—and as one may read in this 2007 account of the episode (that should be read after seeing the film)—but that’s okay. Movies about actual events invariably employ dramatic license and distort the historical record in parts. The film does have a few implausibilities and anachronisms—and particularly in the dramatic airport scene at the end—, and I wanted to rewrite the historical introduction, but no big deal. The details—historical, cultural—are pretty good on the whole and Istanbul was the right place to shoot the pic (though perhaps Ankara would have been even better). One error, for the record: it is inconceivable that the American/Canadian women would have been able to walk through the Tehran bazaar—or anywhere in the city—wearing no head covering.
As it happens, today is the 33rd anniversary of the storming of the US embassy in Tehran. I was living in New York City—and through the entire hostage crisis—and remember the day well. Though my politics were solidly leftist—more so than they are today—I was indignant at the televised scenes that day from Tehran and remained so for the duration of crisis—though was also indignant at the wave of Iran-bashing in the US (e.g. the “Fuck Iran” buttons worn by more than a few on the streets of Manhattan) and acts of physical aggression against Iranian students—whose numbers were huge in the US at the time—, or those assumed to be Iranian (funny true story: American in a store menacingly asks a Middle Eastern-looking male in his 20s, “Are you an eye-rainian student?” Answer: “No, I’m Persian.” Response from American: “Oh, okay”). But the great majority of American leftists I knew—including close friends—declined to criticize, let alone condemn, the Iranian regime during the hostage crisis. Not that they endorsed taking the US diplomats hostage but there was no indignation; moreover, there was an effort to see things from the Iranian regime’s point of view, indeed to apologize for the SOBs. I was not on that page. And then there was the conference on Iran at the New School in the spring of ’80, where Mansour Farhang viciously attacked Mangol Bayat for her temerity in (gently) critiquing the Iranian regime in her talk. She was visibly shaken at the virulence of Farhang’s verbal assault. And no one on the panel or in the audience stood up for her. Seeing Farhang on 6th Avenue afterward, walking with his alpha academic male pals Edward Said and Samih Farsoun, I had a visceral moment of disgust toward the lot of them (though did remain a fan of Said’s through the decade). Fahrang naturally became an opponent of the Ayatollahs later on. I wonder if he ever thought to apologize to Ms. Bayat for being such an odious jerk that day. Oh well. Back to the movie, do see it if you haven’t already.
UPDATE: In the interest of balance here is a critique of ‘Argo’ by Iranian-Canadian journalist Jian Ghomeshi, that was just sent to me by a friend who was a Canadian diplomat in Tehran in the early ’90s (and where he met his wife, so his link to the country is ongoing). Some of Mr. Ghomeshi’s criticisms are well-taken, though I do think he is being overly sensitive. And it is not true that “there is not one positive Iranian subject in the entire story” (e.g. the housekeeper at the Canadian ambassador’s residence). As for his calling the 1991 Hollywood potboilier ‘Not Without My Daughter’ “a particularly racist film about the U.S.-Iran experience,” he is not wide of the mark here, though what I remember most about that one—apart from its general trashiness—was Vincent Canby’s review, in which he referred to the Sally Field character as the type of American, who, if she were a tourist in Paris, would insist on eating at McDonald’s. On ‘A Separation’ Mr. Ghomeshi may rest assured that this film has been seen by many in the West and that since Khatami’s election in 1997 and, above all, the 2009 Green Revolution, the prevailing image of the Iranian people in the US and Europe has been a positive one: of a people who are, in their majority, not anti-American or anti-Western, and who would like nothing more than to throw off the yoke of the ayatollahs and join the modern, democratic world.
2nd UPDATE: French reviews of the film are tops for the most part, with the expected handful that are negative (and the negativity of a couple are not political in nature). The contre one in Télérama—opposing the pour—is particularly inane. As for the spectator reviews on Allociné, they’re even better than those of the critics. Where I saw it (UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles) part of the audience applauded at the end.
3rd UPDATE: Journalist and author Michael Totten, who has reported from the Middle East over the years, has a good review of the film in City Journal. He says it may be enjoyed by Democrats and Republicans alike. I agree. He links to a couple of knuckleheaded leftist reviews of the pic that I had missed. I should say that I do not share Totten’s assertion that Hollywood films about the Middle East and terrorism have a “leftist bias,” and I make it a point to see all of them. The problem with Hollywood films on the region is simply that they’re bad, period. The best film on the Middle East and terrorism I’ve seen in a while—and that is fast-paced and action-filled—is ‘Labyrinth’, by Turkish director Tolga Örnek, which I wrote about earlier this year.
4th UPDATE: Brown University prof Shiva Balaghi slams ‘Argo’, calling it “Jingoism as history.” Ouch! (February 21, 2013)
5th UPDATE: Critic Kevin B. Lee writes in Slate that ‘Argo’ is “the year’s worst Best Picture nominee” and tells the movie to go “f—k yourself.” Strong language. Lee criticizes the film for what it isn’t more than for what it is. IMO he would be better off f—king himself. (February 25, 2013)
6th UPDATE: Adam Garfinkle weighs in on ‘Argo’ on his blog. He liked around 99.44% of the film, so he said, but the remaining 0.56% grated on him. His explanation, while overly long—as is his wont—, is worth the read (his critique differs considerably from those of Shiva Balaghi and other tiersmondistes). (February 28, 2013)