Oct 28 2012 4:00pm

The Hollywood Option: Argo

A movie review of Argo

On its most basic level, Argo is a tense spy film whose ludicrous premise is only redeemed by the fact that it’s 100% true: CIA agent Tony Mendez really did rescue six American diplomats from Iran during the Hostage Crisis by blustering in and out of the country pretending to be a producer for a science fiction movie that was never going to be made. The writing is sharp, the directing is tight, and the acting—from director/star Ben Affleck as Mendez down to the smallest cameo—is, across the board, fantastic. On that level alone the movie is great and you should go see it.

But beyond the basics, Argo is also complicated exploration of the power of fiction to on one hand tell a story, and on the other, shape reality. Both espionage and film making rely on telling complicated lies that people want to and need to believe, if only for a couple hours. (Except that people in the CIA can never take credit for what they’ve done, while Hollywood people will sue for their proper credit.)

As such, Argo wants the audience to be aware that it too is fiction (even if it’s based on truth). It opens with a history of 20th century Iran told in storyboards (as in, “if we were making a movie, this is how we would tell the story”) and ends with side by side comparisons of shots from the film and photos of the people, places, and events Affleck was trying to recreate. And recreate the period he does, using late ‘70s fashions and haircuts, a 50% lower film stock and enough shots borrowed from All the President’s Men to make Argo look like it was actually shot in 1980.

Affleck makes the audience aware of the unreality to make us question if what we are seeing is accurate in this and all films, even science fiction movies. After all, genre fiction has an unfortunate habit of taking real ethnicities, dressing them up as aliens, then getting conflict out of our (white) protagonists inability to deal with these strange beings (looking at you, Star Trek.) Argo,” the movie within the movie, is rife with Orientalism, taking place on a desert planet, “Middle Eastern in feel,” with scenes at the bazaar, the palace, and on the dunes. We don’t see much of the film they are pretending to make—a few storyboards, some lines from a table reading—but it looks like a poorly-written and more racist version of Star Wars.

Orientalism is not a mistake the actual movie Argo makes. For a film in which a CIA agent is firmly positioned as the good guy, the Iranians are presented as diverse, humane, educated, and completely aware of a world outside their borders who have real grievances with the interference of American and British forces. Tehran is not an alien city at all, but a modern one that looks like Los Angeles from the air. Of course, the banality of the city makes the violence of the Revolutionary Guard all the more shocking, women eating Kentucky Fried Chicken are immediately contrasted with men hung from cranes.

Additionally, the Iranians are presented as storytellers in their own right. They have a Ministry of Culture that welcomes what they think is a Canadian film crew, hopes they make a romantic comedy about a foreign bride, and warns them off making crap about flying carpets and genies and such. Additionally, the student protestors holding the Americans hostage are explicitly called out as putting on a show for the cameras, and their demands for the return of the Shah and the mock executions they hold are intercut with the table reading of “Argo,” making the point that the Iranians have some control over their own narrative and how they are perceived. They are not only part of the world and aware of the world but they also have some control over the world.

That is why “Argo,” the fake movie, had to be a science fiction movie, and a bad one. The very cultural blindness that the real movie Argo eschews is what could believably lead a film crew to try to portray a country in the middle of an international crisis as an alien hellscape. A cheap Star Wars knock-off is exactly the movie that would be made in 1980, as Hollywood transitioned from gritty, realistic dramas, like Argo, to blockbuster spectacles, like “Argo.” And big budget action movies translate well in foreign markets. 

The key scene, then, is at the end, when Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), one of the Americans being rescued, explains the movie they are making to the guards at the airport. He speaks to them in Farsi, uses the storyboards to illustrate the visuals, and tells a universal story of a father trying to save his son. The guards immediately get it and let the film crew pass, because this is a movie they want to see. By speaking to them in their language, Joe finds a common bond. Fiction has a way of bringing us together.

Of course, that scene never happened. The actual story of “Argo” is less exciting and more ridiculous. No one ever questioned the diplomats to that extent on leaving the country. They were simply accepted as Canadian filmmakers and the plan went off without a hitch. The success of the plan depended on just how ridiculous “Argo” really was. Barry Geller’s script, based on Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, was supposed to launch a franchise and theme park with designs by Jack Kirby, so that when Tony Mendez got a hold of it, he had so much production material to work with that no one would ever question that he was serious about making a movie. After all, those storyboards Joe shows the guard are supposedly drawn by the greatest comics artist that ever lived.

In this way, Argo cycles back and forth between truth and fiction: a made-up scene reveals shared humanity; a racist production is accepted by real Persians, because only a racist film would want to shoot in Iran at that time; the bigger the lie, the more easily it’s accepted. Argo is about the complicated fictional worlds that we create, and why we choose to believe in them, if only for a few hours. As Tony tells Joe, and as Joe proves, “my little story is the only thing between you and gun to your head.”

Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at

2. chaosprime
ce: Zelazny, not Zelazney.
3. S. M. Stirling
You know, people from different cultures are actually, like, different.

It is a mystery why some people have problems with this.

Why people confuse "race" with culture is also a mystery, as if differences in language or religion somehow affected your skin color.

Most Middle Easterners are in fact, your garden-variety white people; you can't tell a Greek from a Turk by looking at them.

Which is not surprising, since about a third of the population of Greece is descended from refugees from Anatolia, and a similar percentage of Turks trace their family lines to people driven out of the Balkans during the decline of the Ottoman Empire.
Matt Ries
4. mattries37315
Excellent essay to a go along with an excellent film. Even though I had an understanding of how the events actually happened and could tell when events were dramaticized, I still found myself engrossed with what I was watching. This is going on top of my to-buy list once it comes out, period.
Nathan Rice
5. quazar87
@S. M. Stirling

I'm sorry, that's not at all correct. It is in fact racist to claim that people are fundamentally different based on genetic "ethnicity." The differences in genes are monumentally miniscule. Any two given people, an Australian Aborigine and a Swede for example, are more genetically alike than two chimps from non-overlapping ranges.

Furthermore, Turks and Greeks do not share the weird made up history that you concocted. They look the same because their phenotypes happen to express similarly. It's a crapshoot. It's the same reason why a Spanish girl with the right coloring can pass for an Arab girl. It's not recent population migration that makes people look alike. It's because we aren't that different in the first place.

Cultures are different, thanks to their history and geography, but no culture is entirely alien from another. There is no culture where mothers do not love their children. Where parents do not want a better life for their children than they had. Where people do not enjoy companionship, respect hospitality, or grieve for loss. At the same time, all cultures have violent monsters who are determined to take whatever power and wealth they can from whoever they can. Selfishness and vainity are universal vices.

Cultures differentiate in specifics. Specific practices, organizations, etc. They aren't different at the fundamental level, because they are made up of people.
8. Hedgehog Dan
"Cultures are different, thanks to their history and geography, but no culture is entirely alien from another. There is no culture where mothers do not love their children. Where parents do not want a better life for their children than they had. Where people do not enjoy companionship, respect hospitality, or grieve for loss. At the same time, all cultures have violent monsters who are determined to take whatever power and wealth they can from whoever they can. Selfishness and vainity are universal vices."

I agree.

However, what I find ridiculous, is that when cultural(!) differences come up, we have to repeat that over and over and over again.

Moreover, I might have mistaken, but essentially the third and fifth post is about the same thing, that one shall not mistake ethnicity for culture, because that is prejudiced.

I also have to add, that I noticed, that when this topic pops up its head on the internet, well-intentioned people tend to make a serious mistake. When somebody mentions that there are differences between two cultures, they automatically believe that they have to explain, that both culture consist of people, we are all the same, therefore neither of the two parties are evil. Nobody said that, but the word "different" was said, and people consider it all the same. As if different automatically means "lesser" or "evil", therefore we have to eschew it, we have to explain, that we are all the same, there are no differences and therefore neither of us lesser or evil.

And that notion is bigotted. It is not open-minded, it is conformist. The greatest mistakes were commited thanks to this fallacy.

For example, if we are on the topics of Australian Aborigines, when Europeans came to contact with them, they (the Europeans) were flabberghasted by the nudity of these "savages", and therefore they gave them clothes as a gift, because every "civilized" person shall be dressed. What they did not realize - and they would not have, not for ages - was that Aborigines did not need clothes, not in their climate. Quite the contrary - the clothes the Europeans gave were inadequate for the climate, and it caused some really nasty diseases for the Aborigines who wore them.

You see, the Aborigines were not lesser, but because their dressing habit was different from the Europeans, the Europeans automatically believed it.

Why I wrote this? Because I really hate that globalizing mentality that "we believe that every person is equal, but to ensure that notion, we have to make them exactly like us, and erase anything, which is different."

Thank God, we are different, people! Having differences are not only not bad, it is good! Cultural differences gave us more viewpoints, and more viewpoints are necessary for progress. Why do you think that kings and rulers in different eras favoured a court from all-over-the-world? (Or they known world?) Because of this. It is also good on a personal level, because coming across with a different viewpoint helps to understand our place in the world, and to know more about ourselves as well, which helps us to be a better man.

The problems are not the differences, but the mistakes we made failing to accept that a person from a different culture has a different worldview, and we do not need to enlight him. We have to eschew the notion, that only one point can be right, the others are wrong, and... because we all know where it leads.

I am an Eastern-European, currently attending to a school in Denmark. I also attended to schools where Americans taught us. I only mention this to contrast my experiences and show what I meant.

In Denmark, people are open-minded. I was able to talk with them about many topics, and they never backed out. Currently, I live in an area full with Mohamedans, and they are not just nice people, they are able to leave with their creed, and you cannot feel any tension, you cannot feel local people try to assimilate them. They can were their traditional outfitst, and nobody says, that "hey, why don't you wear an ACDC T-shirt just to prove, that you are like us?" (Even though they can, if they wish.)

I attend to an international class - of course -, and it is full of people from all over the world. I frequently talk with one of my fellow student from the Phillipines, and once she laughed, that I found the populace of my country - mere 10 million - high, why they have a populace of 100 million. Also, she told me that they celebrate Christmas differently there, than here in Denmark. And it felt good. It felt good to view my culture through the lense of a different culture. I learnt many thing about myself. (And no, I won't write that she is a human being just like me, because I believe that every mature person should know it by default. It stands to reason, people, and repeating it over and over again is really unfortunate.)

Meanwhile, I noticed in many of those Americans who taught us, that when this topic popped out, they really tried to persuade me, that they were open-minded. Oh, they are not racist, you see, because, for example, huh, they found that show racist and offensive. Therefore they cannot be, huh? But when I spoke something which was different from their standard, their embarassment and perplexity was palpable. They did not continue the topic, they did not react at all beside looking confused. They were not interested in my point of view. We could not talk even about which one of us was right. (Which would have been still better than that perplexed silence.)

They could not do anything with anything they found different. (I do not claim, that it is a general attitude, I only met a few, but this was my experience nonetheless.)

Here in Denmark we might not agree in anything, but we can accept that we are not the same, and there is nothing wrong with it. There is nothing wrong with it, if we have different worldviews.

And by the way, fuck genetics, already. Even if we had as much differences between two of us, as bonobos and chimpanzees, then what? That would not make any of us any lesser. Genetic differences after all is not about who is inferior or superior. It is a fallacy that need to be put in the trash bin already. (Despite yes, we are not that different on a genetic level at all. I just questioned, why it should still be an important part of these arguments?)
9. Athena Andreadis
Everyone is saying the same thing, so why the yelling? Perhaps because people are using the term "different" sloppily.

"If we had as much differences between us as bonobos and chimpanzees." We do and they do. That's called a species difference and it is both defined and maintained by the inability to interbreed, usually arising from relatively lengthy isolation of founder pools.

Humans are a single species right now -- and given the latest findings, Neanderthals may have been siblings rather than cousins. So we're all very similar across scales. Differences among species are real, which is one reason why the messianic Caesar from the Planet of the Apes reboot would be unable to speak the way humans do, switch to fluid bipedalism, or communicate with gorillas.

And cultural differences can be as "hard-wired" as biological ones.
Ben Goodman
10. goodben

I think you and Stirling are saying the same thing as your main theses, i.e. that genetics are not what makes cultures different.

However, what Stiriling said about recent Greek and Turkish migrations are true, but probably not why they look similar. That probably has more to do with assimilation of the Anatolian Romans (who were Greek culturaly) into the invading Turkic peoples. The Ottomans allowed the Greeks there to govern themselves within limits, but provided incentives to convert/assimilate. There was also probably quite a bit of internal movement between what we now call Greece and Turkey for the more than two millenia they were part of the same country (Roman/Byzantine until the 1400s and then Ottoman until the 1800s). There were quite a few Greeks in parts of Anatolia until the founding of modern Turkey in the 1920s when a lot of them were expelled due to Greece trying to annex some of the Greek-heavy parts of Turkey.

As for why some Spaniards look Arab, perhaps you've heard of the Moorish Conquest of Spain?

While it's true that just because the fact that some people look share similar features doesn't mean they're closely related (for example the skin color of Africans and Australian Aboriginies). The examples you chose are poor.
11. Gerry__Quinn
quazar87 @5: "It is in fact racist to claim that people are fundamentally different based on genetic "ethnicity." Any two given people, an Australian Aborigine and a Swede for example, are more genetically alike than two chimps from non-overlapping ranges."

I don't know how the genetic variation among chimpanzees compares (or why it should matter), but the genetic variation between human lineages is in fact quite substantial. (As one would expect, given our wide dispersion and the obvious phenotypical differences.)

A lot of nonsense has been promulgated attempting to minimise the differences based on Lewontin's fallacy (likely the source of your claim above) and a host of similar obfuscations, and attempting to smear scientists as 'racist' for even attempting to investigate honestly the differences.

And yes, cultures differ too, even more than genes. Of course all cultures love their children, or they would die out. But that applies also to chimpanzees.
Nathan Rice
12. quazar87

Absolute horseshit. To quote Witherspoon, et al., "The proportion of human genetic variation due to differences between populations is modest, and individuals from different populations can be genetically more similar than individuals from the same population."

Cultural differences are a matter of historical development and political choice. They are not hard-wired in any sense of the term. If nothing else, Attaturk should have taught us that.
13. Gerry__Quinn
If you're going to describe my argument as horseshit based on a Wikipedia article, at least read the article properly, in which it is admitted:

"Witherspoon et al. attempt to answer the question, "How often is a pair of individuals from one genetically more dissimilar than two individuals chosen from two different populations?". The answer depends on the number of polymorphisms used to define that dissimilarity, and the populations being compared. When they analysed three geographically distinct populations (European, African and East Asian) and measured genetic similarity over many thousands of loci, the answer to their question was "never"."

So your quote above amounts to: if you take populations that are relatively closely related, and don't try to measure too many loci, and squint one eye, you can argue that in some cases Lewontin was kinda sorta right.

As I understand it, current thinking is that all populations except the original African stock contain a couple of percent of genetic material of Neanderthal origin. How does that square with your: "The differences in genes are monumentally miniscule"?

As for "culture being hard-wired", that was someone else, and I'm not quite sure what they meant. Genetics does of course affect culture (obvious examples: lactose tolerance affects and is affected by food production, and hair type affects hair care) but probably not much in ways that are simultaneously dramatic and predictable.
15. Athena Andreadis
Genes do not encode for higher-order functions and the sum of their output encodes for the basic brain chassis. So at that scale, we're essentially identical. Detailed brain wiring, which is what makes us individuals, is done after birth and continues through life -- hence plasticity and the heavy environmental/cultural contribution to the outcome.

At the gene level, variability (alleles, copy number, haplotypes) is present and indeed can be used to pinpoint origin. However, with relatively few exceptions that map to early neurogenetic events (pertaining to laying down the basic chassis, mentioned above) or dominant mutations, gene variants encode susceptibilities, rather than absolute certainty of expression of a particular attribute -- especially in a context of heterozygosity. And just to be clear, "attribute" here means such things as "strength of binding to iron chromophore" rather than "virtue in the presence of male non-relatives".
16. Sabrina Vourvoulias
With main protag roles still scarce for Latin@ actors, Ben Affleck casts ... himself as Tony Mendez. O-o-o-kay then.
17. Gerry__Quinn
Indeed, Athena is correct in that population genetics do not determine culture in any strong way. I gave a couple of examples in which they will influence it, but probably fairly weakly. And if hair type or whatever should come to influence a society strongly, it is not because its importance in that society is related to genetics: it is because historical contingencies in that society caused them to fixate on it.

In fact, the argument put forward by quazar87 is essentially somewhat irrelevant, in that the significance of human genetic variation is not well-expressed in terms of the total number of variant loci. I point out that it is factually wrong as I tire of seeing it used as a hammer to bash down any discussion of population genetics.

Ironically enough, there is a valid statement that makes the same kind of argument: in any particular aspect of human capacity or variation that we care about (as distinct from, say, 'intrinsic genetic Swedishness'), the distribution of capacities of all population groups will overlap strongly even if the population averages are different, as they often will be. (Within reason: few pygmies are likely to excel at basketball.)

But putting it like that is getting too close to objective analysis for some people.
18. Ronald Lewis
I thought the scene when Stafford was describing the movie to the revolutionary guard soldiers and using the sound effects that was taken from "The Return of the Jedi" when C3PO was describing to the Ewoks how they fought off the empire. Their are so many references to the original Star Wars in this movie. Why doesn't Disney (since they own the rights) tie the Star Wars #7 to Argo.

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