Ben Affleck's critically acclaimed film Argo has been getting some well-deserved Oscar buzz for his gripping portrayal of the story of six Americans trapped in revolutionary Iran.
But while the film may have broken free the natural law linking the quality of Affleck's films with their proximity to Boston Common, Argo cannot seem to escape some of the same two-dimensional depictions of Iran that continue to stymie our understanding of the country three decades later.
Much of this portrayal comes from the fact that the movie is told from the vantage point of a handful of Americans rightfully afraid for their lives. But to tell the real story, and to realize the film's goal of honestly and fairly teaching about this moment, the conversation needs to continue and address the following lingering stereotypes:
1. Muslim Rage:
The film offers a quick synopsis of Iranian history that rightfully acknowledges the extent of British and American exploitation. But the justification given for the 1979 revolution, that the Shah's attempts at Westernization "enraged" a "traditional Shia population," falls back on the tired image of the "angry Muslim at odds with the West" that isn't doing us any good.
Most Iranians had a lot to be angry about in the pre-revolution system, and teaching girls chemistry had little to do with it. Islamic culture did not predispose anyone in Iran to take to the streets against the Shah or to storm the U.S. embassy. In fact, Iran's Shia clerics have historically been "quietists," preaching an avoidance of confrontation, often as a means of self-preservation.
Even the Islamist thinkers that inspired Khomeini saw modernization as the end goal, but they wanted change to strengthen Persian culture, not crush it. These men were often more populist than Islamist, to the point that many Islamists during the revolution co-opted popular Marxist slogans ("Islam originates from the masses" and the memorable "Islam is not opiate of the masses"). Focusing on religion alone, though, masks another important point.
2. Khomeini's Revolution:
The few clips we see in Argo of the Khomeini devotees that took over the embassy give the impression that the Ayatollah was the be-all end-all of the Iranian Revolution. While the influence of Khomeini and his use of social media (cassette tapes relayed from Iraq to Iran) shouldn't be understated, the Ayatollah watched the revolution play out on his TV screen in Paris before he returned to lead the country.
The revolutionaries that ousted the Shah came together from all parts of society, starting with an unusual alliance of secular students and marginalized clerics. But groups like Iran's feminists, peasant farmers, and Marxists all took part as well.
The Islamic Republic we know now was anything but certain at the outset of the revolution, and if we view 1979 and Iran today only through the quick images we see in Argo of bearded men next to women in black chador, we ignore a society that is as rich in opinion as our own.
3. An Embassy with No Past:
From the perspective of the Americans in Argo, staring down a huge mob just beyond the gates, it would seem that the U.S. Embassy was only targeted in retribution for decades of support of the Shah, or even just for taking in the ailing dictator in New York City.
But as most Iranians outside those walls in 1979 knew, the U.S. had not only supported the 1953 coup that ousted the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, but the U.S. embassy had orchestrated it. The taking of embassy in 1979 was thus a strategic move to protect the revolution and prevent another reinstallation of the Shah.
That's not to excuse any of the atrocities committed during the revolution, nor is it to fault Affleck with intentionally misrepresenting Iran. But the U.S.'s long history with Iran is one marred more often by ignorance than by intention, and 30 years of severed ties has only made it worse. When we have a rare opportunity like Argo to publically revisit to this painful moment and better our understanding, we can't allow ourselves to fall back on old habits.