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Argo and the Iranian-US saga: 'old cuts remain fresh wounds'

By Naser Ghobadzadeh and Omid Tofighian - posted Tuesday, 26 February 2013


For some time now the Iranian nuclear crisis has contributed significantly to the rocky history of Iranian-US relations – old cuts never seem to heal. The timing of the 2012 film Argo, directed and starring Ben Affleck, is impeccable and, along with impressive directing and acting, contributed to the film winning numerous accolades at well over a dozen awards including the BAFTAs, the AFI Awards and seven nominations at the 85th Academy Awards to be held on the 24th of February, 2013.

The film is politically and culturally important in various ways. In order to disclose the film's most significant aspects and misgivings one needs to identify the use of important narrative techniques, the socio-cultural changes that have taken place in Iran since the hostage crisis and Affleck's cinematic approach to depicting the events.

Argo does not employ what may be termed a conventional and predictable Hollywood plot. It is not governed by a form of cosmic or moral dualism; a 'Good vs. Evil' plot that pits Iran as the archetypal enemy against the epitome of heroism and virtue in the United States.

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Ben Affleck chooses to begin the film with a frame story, a technique particularly familiar to Iranians from rich literature such as the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. Following the short frame story at the beginning, the film presents, among other minor narratives, the chain of events that occurred during the Iran hostage crisis which involved six American would-be hostages who managed to escape and take refuge in the Canadian Embassy-Residence.

It is significant to note that, like the application of the frame narrative in other instances, the historical and political contextualisation of the film in the opening scene forms a particular perception of the circumstances in the viewer that challenges the dichotomies often repeated in political rhetoric and popular culture when representing Western-Muslim relations in general and Iran-Us relations in particular.

What the frame narrative endeavours to achieve is an understanding in the viewer that whenever political relations dissolve there are always historical antecedents. More importantly, the combination of the opening scene with the central story demonstrates the contribution of the two sides to the drawn-out belligerent relationship. In contrast to biased interpretations of the tensions between the two states, the techniques used in the film, and the attitude taken to represent the story, refrain from holding one side solely responsible for long-running hostilities between the two nations.

However, one problematic consequence that may result from the film is that viewers may misinterpret Iranian perceptions towards the US in Affleck's account as directly representative of current Iranian attitudes towards America. Viewers from all backgrounds may overlook the distance in time and the tremendous socio-cultural changes that have taken place in post-revolution Iran.

A number of significant features of contemporary Iranian society indicate the extent to which general Iranian feeling towards America has improved and the fact that a wide gap now exists between the perception of the Islamic state and the views of Iranian citizens. For instance, the prevalence of American fashion and cultural icons throughout the country, the popularity of Hollywood films and American music and desire to travel and immigrate to the West are essential features of modern Iranian life which contest the antagonistic approach taken by the Islamic state.

What stands out in Argo is the effort made by Affleck to pay serious attention to the complex personalities of the central characters, social context and mise-en-scene rather than focus on negative politico-religious events and personalities. It seems that Affleck recognised the excess when it comes to violent and inferior representations of the 'Evil' face of the Muslim world and makes a concerted effort to discover new dimensions without ignoring some obvious harsh realities.

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For instance, in one scene mock executions are depicted in a way that matches the testimonies of survivors. Considering the theme of the film, it was important to inform the viewer of occurrences of this kind however, Affleck could very easily have made these kinds of incidents central to the narrative for sensational affect. Instead, brutal and shocking actions were shot as short passing scenes that function to create an atmosphere of lawlessness and fear rather than subjects on their own; simply one dimension amongst many others.

The film avoids unnecessarily increasing hostility between Iranians and Americans and aims to draw attention to the personalities and lives of the main characters and the chaotic and unstable circumstances they had to operate within. In films pertaining to Middle Eastern-Western relations the common dualist plot has been overdone; Affleck seeks new frameworks with which to introduce nuanced interpretations.

If we return to the trope of 'old cuts/fresh wounds', the film can be interpreted as a representation of one phase in the history of Iranian-US dealings – in each phase wounds have been cultivated rather than evolving or emerging out of unfortunate circumstances. The cultivation process involves actions by both that inflicted harm on the opposite side. Actions such as the CIA role in toppling the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953; military and financial support for the Shah regardless of human rights violations; taking the US diplomats hostage; Carter's covert operation to infiltrate Tehran and rescue the hostages; support for Saddam during Iraq's eight year war against Iran; the shooting down of Iran Air flight 655 and killing 290 civilians; Iran's major opportunistic contributions to fostering an aggressive anti-Americanism throughout the world; and Iran's coalitions with all states antagonistic towards America, to name but a few.

Understanding the history in terms of these metaphors we can explore the layers of wounds, cultivated over six decades, and arrive at a situation that now involves what has been termed the Iranian nuclear crisis. If a war eventuates, the current nuclear crisis must necessarily be understood as a critical gash inflicted on already infected wounds. However, a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis and, more importantly, the emergence of a democratic Iran may contribute significantly to healing old wounds.

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About the Authors

Naser Ghobadzadeh worked as editor-in-chief of foreign policy service of Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA). He has also published a book about value changes in Iran and its impact on political climate. He is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and I.R., University of Sydney.

Iranian born Omid Tofighian is qualified in philosophy and religious studies and teaches at the University of Sydney and UWS Bankstown.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Naser Ghobadzadeh
All articles by Omid Tofighian

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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