Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Argo"

Feature Film 2012, winner of three Oscars, 130 minutes

April 3, 2013

CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures

Overview

Argo, a film about a creative and daring escape from Iran a few months after the 1979 revolution, was one of the most high-profile films of 2012. Directed and starred in by Ben Affleck, it won many awards, most notably the Oscar for Best Picture; earned over $227 million worldwide; and scored an over 90 percent approval rating, according to critics and the general public, on the always-reliable Rotten Tomatoes. Yet, this blockbuster has been the subject of some serious criticism. Of course, Iran does not like how it was portrayed and has threatened to sue Hollywood. But current and former government officials from New Zealand, the UK, and Canada have also taken offense. Nobody is saying Argo is a poorly made film; rather some argue that, with multiple historical inaccuracies and the addition of exciting story elements, it might be too well-made.

Argo tells the story of six U.S. State Department employees who escaped the 1979 siege at the American embassy in Tehran (which resulted in the 444-day hostage saga), but who were still trapped inside a dangerous Iran. As the film tells it, the Americans were cloistered inside the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, who, as it was quickly explained, was the only ally willing to help out. Months go by and the CIA finally hatches a plan to get the Americans out: pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi epic (entitled Argo) and hustle onto a plane and out of the newly minted Islamic Republic. Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), a CIA agent who is seemingly unable to smile, arrives in Tehran to lead the escapade. He forges passports, gives the Americans a crash course in film production and Canadian dialects, and, generally, prepares them for the worst. Despite a near-tragic location-scouting trip to a bazaar, cold feet from the American government at the worst possible time, a tense encounter with the Republican Guard in an airport interrogation room, and several police cars chasing the commercial getaway jet, the Americans finally make it out of Iran. Mendez is given a medal, which, due to the classified nature of the rescue, he immediately has to give back and Canadian-American cooperation is applauded.

Fact Versus Fiction

As many have pointed out, though, virtually none of this actually happened. The basic outline of the escape from Iran is true, but certain parts were played up, others were played down, and some stuff was just made up. This was seemingly done for two reasons: to make the story more action-packed and to give the Americans, namely Affleck's Mendez, more to do.

The most contentious and talked-about point of departure from the truth has to do with who initially helped the Americans in Tehran. In the movie, this was taken care of with a single line: "Brits turned them away. Kiwis turned them away. Canadians took them in." In truth, though the Canadians certainly played the starring role in sheltering the Americans, it was a little more complicated. A State Department document from 1980 says that UK and New Zealand diplomats did, in fact, help to protect the six Americans. These diplomats later confirmed that they briefly sheltered the Americans, brought them food, and drove them to the airport for their flight out of the country.

The New Zealand government has been most vocal in its criticisms. Kiwi politician Winston Peters even brought the matter before his country's parliament, which passed a unanimous motion condemning the film. Peters said, "It's a diabolical misrepresentation of the acts of courage and bravery, done at significant risk to themselves, by New Zealand diplomats." Prime Minister John Key, though, later attempted to defuse the situation, saying, "But in the end, this is Hollywood . . . I think we've made our point and we should probably move on."

Sir John Graham, the UK's ambassador to Iran at the time, was also not pleased with the film's depiction of his diplomatic office. "My immediate reaction on hearing about this was one of outrage," he told The Telegraph. "I have since simmered down, but am still very distressed that the film-makers should have got it so wrong."

Though their contributions were central to the plot, the role of the Canadians was downplayed, as well. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Taylor said that the CIA was a "junior partner" in the escape. The former ambassador said Mendez had a much smaller role in the operation and that the Canadian government did much of the work. Still, Taylor called the movie "fun," "thrilling," and "pertinent." Much like Prime Minister Key, he understands, "this is Hollywood."

The Iranians have criticized the film from an entirely different angle. Canadian-Iranian writer Jian Ghomeshi points out that Iranians are blanketed as "hysterical, screaming, untrustworthy, irrational, bearded and lethal antagonists." Iranian journalist Saeed Kamali Dehghan agrees, writing that Argo portrays his fellow citizens as "ugly, poor, strictly religious, fanatical and ignorant." Iranian officials, with the support of a French lawyer, are even, reportedly, planning to sue Hollywood on grounds that the the country was portrayed unrealistically.

Affleck is aware of these criticisms and his defense is that since the film purports to be "based on a true story," they were allowed "dramatic license." Indeed, three of the film's most nerve-wracking moments—the chaos at the bazaar, the airport interrogation, and the plane taking off amidst police cars—didn't happen. If the climax was simply six people nonchalantly walking onto the plane, the film might have had trouble getting made. Affleck also admitted that the way film treated the British and New Zealand embassies wasn't "totally fair."

Questions about historical accuracy are, of course, not uncommon for Hollywood. Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty [Editor's note: Check out Carnegie Council's Ethics on Film review of Zero Dark Thirty], which were also well-received and won awards, faced similar criticism. The CIA's acting director even weighed in on the Zero Dark Thirty controversy. The debate about Argo, though, feels different. The climaxes of Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty—the 13th Amendment vote and the raid on Osama bin Laden—actually happened. With Argo, though, the climactic airport scene, with the menacing Republican Guards and the runway chase, was created out of thin air. And this, it can be argued, does a great disservice—not to the Canadians, British, or Kiwis, but to the actual story. It should have been enough that six Americans were trapped in revolution-era Iran and that the governments of Canada and the United States creatively collaborated to smuggle them out. Instead, Affleck opted for the Hollywood route and, though, he won awards, received plaudits, and earned hundreds of millions for his studio, he really only told half of what was a truly amazing story.

As for questions of cultural insensitivity in regards to Iran, it probably would have been hard to portray the Iranians in a different light. The film hinges on the fact that the Americans faced mortal danger if they left the ambassador's home. Of course, it is tough to see your fellow citizens portrayed as members of screaming, bloodthirsty mobs, but this is inarguably what happened in Iran in 1979. The scenes with Iranians could have been a little more nuanced, but without portraying a sense of real fear pulsing through Tehran, again, it would have been hard for the film to get made.

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. Do you agree with Prime Minister Key's assertion that "this is Hollywood" or do you think the New Zealand, Canada, and UK governments were justified in being offended by the historical inaccuracies?

2. Did the film portray Iranians stereotypically or unfairly?

3. Did Ben Affleck take too many liberties with the story? Does saying that it is "based on a true story" absolve him of criticism in this regard?

4. Does the film portray the CIA, the United States, and/or Iran objectively? Is it American propaganda?

5. Does a filmmaker have a responsibility to stay truthful to a story? Should the fact the story is politically sensitive have any bearing on this question?

6. Considering American-Iranian relations are strained in 2012-2013, should this film have been made? Could this film increase nationalism on either or both sides, or do audiences generally accept that "this is Hollywood"?

Selected Carnegie Council Resources

Going to Tehran: Prospects for U.S.-Iranian Engagement
Flynt Leverett, Penn State University; Hillary Mann Leverett, American University
Americans' view of Iran as an illegitimate system in imminent danger of overthrow is wrongheaded, wishful thinking, say the Leveretts. The U.S. needs to come to terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, not as a favor to Iran, but to save its own position in the Middle East and avert another war. Nixon went to China. Obama needs to go to Iran. (U.S. Global Engagement, January 2013)

Prospects for U.S.-Iran Relations
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Princeton University
Iran and the U.S. have a long list of common interests, including Afghanistan, stability in Iraq, and fighting drug trafficking. A good way to start creating trust between the two nations would be to cooperate on these issues, instead of always focusing on divisive ones like nuclear capability. (U.S. Global Engagement, December 2012)

U.S.-Iran Relations: Exiting the Cul de Sac?
David Speedie, Carnegie Council
Leading a coalition in a relentless campaign of sanctions against Iran, the U.S. has the upper hand. Therefore it should make the first move to break through the current impasse, says David Speedie. As first steps towards normal relations, he suggests some things that the U.S. ought NOT to do. (Article, July 2012)

Iran: A Diplomatic Solution
Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, U.S. Foreign Service (retired)
In this knowledgeable and detailed talk, Ambassador Pickering cuts through the current hysteria about Iran, stressing that we still have time for diplomacy. In fact it may finally be the right moment for both sides to engage in constructive talks. (U.S. Global Engagement, March 2012)

A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran
Trita Parsi, National Iranian American Council
Trita Parsi recounts the previously unknown story of American and Iranian negotiations during Obama's early years as president, and the real reasons for their current stalemate. Contrary to prevailing opinion, Parsi contends that diplomacy has not been fully tried. (Public Affairs Program, January 2012)

Report From Iran
Mohammad Javad Ardashir Larijani, High Council for Human Rights of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Dr. Larijani, Iran's secretary general of the High Council for Human Rights, describes Iran's system as a "democratic structure based on Islamic rationality," and engages in a sometimes heated discussion with the audience on nuclear weapons and human rights in Iran. (U.S. Global Engagement, November 2011)

Dealing with Iran: "Missed Opportunities" and "Holding Contradictory Ideas at the Same Time"
David Speedie, Carnegie Council; Gary Sick, Columbia University
How, ask David Speedie and Gary Sick, can we move the U.S.-Iran dialogue beyond the current mutually recriminatory stalemate? (Article, May 2010)

Letter from the United States to Iran
David Speedie, Carnegie Council
In a possible letter from the United States to Iran, David Speedie writes of the two nations' shared interests, the causes that divide them, and on moving beyond past grievances. (Article, February 2009)

A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East
Sir Lawrence Freedman, King's College London
Looking back over the last 30 years, historian Sir Lawrence Freedman analyzes the complex politics of the Middle East and shows how America's policy choices in previous crises have led to the current dilemmas. (Public Affairs Program, May 2008)

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope
Shirin Ebadi, University of Tehran
Dr. Ebadi discusses Iran's human rights situation, including gender and religious discrimination, and restrictions on freedom of expression. While democracy is incomplete, she says, it cannot be imposed from without, but must develop from within. (Public Affairs Program, May 2006)

Human Rights in the Two Irans
Rhonda Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
A comparison of conditions in Iran in the last years of Pahlavi control and in the first year of the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic government illustrates nothing better than the difficulties inherent in governing a developing nation as diverse as Iran, despite a leader's good intentions. (Worldview article, July 1980)

Iran and the United Methodists
Elliott Wright, Journalist
As the Iran hostage crisis dragged on through the spring of 1980, America's Protestant denominations urged executive "restraint" in attempts to free the hostages. They also encouraged President Carter to promote "reconciliation" between the American and Iranian peoples. (Worldview article, July 1980)

What the U.S. Needs to Know About Iran
Yahya Armjani, Macalester College
The Iranian Revolution took the United States and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi by surprise. How did the Iranian government find its back against the wall? The shah's economic and political policies, his disregard of the Constitution, and government corruption could be the explanation. (Worldview article, May 1979)

Works Cited

"'Argo': Former ambassador Ken Taylor sets the record straight", The Star, Jim Coyle, October 7, 2012

"Ben Affleck: 'I love New Zealand'", New Zealand Herald, Cassandra Mason and Isaac Davison, February 27, 2013

"Ben Affleck's new film 'Argo' upsets British diplomats who helped Americans in Iran", The Telegraph, David Barret and Jacqui Goddard, October 20, 2012

"Ben Affleck rewrites history", Maclean's, Brian D. Johnson, September 12, 2012

"Jian Ghomeshi: 'Argo' is crowd-pleasing, entertaining—and unfair to Iranians", The Globe and Mail, Jian Ghomeshi, November 2, 2012

"Passing reference in 'Argo' rankles New Zealand", Associated Press/Yahoo! Movies, Nick Perry, March 21 2013

"Reports: Iran plans suing Hollywood over 'Argo'", Associated Press, Nasser Karimi, March 12, 2013

"Why 'Argo' is hard for Iranians to watch", The Guardian, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, November 13, 2012

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