Staff Reviews

How Hollywood Sees Iran

The new films Argo and The Iran Job offer two very different portraits of the country and its people.

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Judging a historically-themed film based on its factual adherence is usually an exercise in futility, but Ben Affleck's Argo deserves special examination. Its wide release coincides with, and may capitalize on, an upswing in anti-Iranian, pro-war sentiment among Americans; as such, the film has a special responsibility to give a fair representation of the truth. Not doing so could have catastrophic consequences.

So how does it hold up? As to be expected, Argo paints Iranians in two dimensions: (1) actively engaged in anti-American tyranny and (2) there purely for plot purposes. Meanwhile, the Americans are given the camera's fullest sympathy. During the embassy takeover scene, the on-site commander of the embassy's American guards bravely steps outside "to reason with" the rabid crowd of flag burners and sign bearers. That's when, holding a gun to his head, they force their way inside. The film also accurately and repeatedly cites some of the Islamic Republic's torture techniques, including mock executions and fingernail pulling.

These scenes are awfully frightening in both the film and history, but they're not the whole story. Although the Iranian hostage crisis can be seen as a tragic unintended consequence of propping up a puppet dictator in Iran's government in 1953, Argo at best pays lip service to this very real factor in the story it tries to tell.

For instance, at least one of the hostage takers' demands, both in the film and in real life, was that the United States repatriate the shah following his overthrow in the Islamic Revolution. The film glorifies the blasé American attitude toward reaping what one sows when President Jimmy Carter's dashing chief of staff, played by Kyle Chandler, dismisses charges against his country's duplicitous policy with a gruff and breezy zinger whose punchline is something about how they couldn't just leave the shah in the hands of a camel veterinarian in Sinai. Leaving things this way is a dangerous move for a major motion picture with such grave contemporary relevance.

Luckily, there are actually two films about Iran in American theaters right now. Not surprisingly, Argo has a much broader distribution than its less id-driven competitor.

After the hostage crisis ends in 1981, fast-forward to the summer of 2008, when indie documentary The Iran Job shows Kevin Sheppard, a basketball player from the U.S. Virgin Islands, preparing to play a season on southern Iran's A.S. Shiraz team. The owners have hired Kevin to flip the team's low national ranking, but we also watch him cross language barriers and develop unlikely friendships with locals along the way.

While the contemporary conflict with Iran forms the outside context by which we can watch Argo without consciously discussing a modern American retaliation, The Iran Job explicitly addresses the possibility. From beginning to end, the documentary juxtaposes Sheppard's interactions with ordinary Iranians and the strife between his country's government and theirs, taking a decidedly more bottom-up perspective than Argo's almost exclusive attention to a conflict that was, at heart, between governments.

Before Sheppard leaves for Iran, we see him packing his bags in one shot and, in another, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) shrugging and saying that American forces "would be able to totally obliterate" the Iranian population if they decided to do so. Such off-hand declarations from American political leaders seem especially hamfisted when we compare them to, for example, the fun-loving, flirtatious friendship Sheppard forms with three young Iranian women.

When Sheppard isn't playing matchmaker with these girls and learning from them that in Iran, "kissing is illegal," he's playing basketball with his teammates. Aficionados who watch this film won't be disappointed. There's plenty of gameplay on screen, as well as a close look at the enthusiasm of Iranian basketball audiences. Spectators come to games equipped with drums, flutes, and horns, and flags and T-shirts for waving. "I don't even know if they know if the team is winning or losing," Sheppard says in the film. "They just keep dancing."

A.S. Shiraz's rise to the national playoffs coincides with the 2009 presidential election between then-incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi came from the same old guard that oversaw mass executions and, yes, the hostage crisis in the early aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Nevertheless, many Iranian voters in 2009 saw him as the herald of hope and change for their country, much in the same way Americans saw Barack Obama when they elected him in 2008. When Sheppard sees the fatal aftermath of Ahmadinejad's highly disputed reelection, he is struck that any one of his friends here could have easily been one of the protesters shot by the regime's paramilitary forces.

Iranian society has been characterized as a field of paradoxes before, and The Iran Job certainly contributes to this view. Extramarital kissing is illegal, yet Sheppard comforts a teammate after he catches his girlfriend necking with another man in his car. Laleh, one of the young women Sheppard befriends, abhors her country's repressive laws but refuses to leave.

And Sheppard, being American, might have found himself behind enemy lines in Iran, yet from Tehran to Shiraz he's welcomed, lauded, and embraced. Compared to Argo, this is quite the opposite, and a much more up-to-date portait of how Iranians and Americans might hope to relate.

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  1. OT: Enough about Iran, Ben Affleck, or Argo. Tomorrow, James Bond comes back after a 6 year absence.

    1. Only for Yanks. The rest of the world is way ahead of the game.

      1. Yikes! Over $289 million in overseas grosses already. It’s going to be huge when the American release occurs.

    2. I thought Quantum of Solace (FUCK, what a pretentious title) was 2008?

      1. I intentionally ignore that one, but not as much as the latter Brosnan flicks.

        1. Yeah, after I clicked Submit I realized you probably dated back to Casino Royale for a reason.

          But…..Skydome? Skyfall? Skyrim? Whatever the new one’s called, that’ll get the franchise back on track!

      2. Quantum of Solace (FUCK, what a pretentious title)

        The Hildebrand Rarity or Risico for Bond 24!

    3. He ditched the vodka martinis for Heineken.

      Lame.

    4. Ha! It’s been in Brazil for over a month. I saw it last week… it’s pretty decent.

      /smug braggart

  2. Matt Damon’s boyfriend looks good in a beard.

  3. Argo at best pays lip service to this very real factor in the story it tries to tell

    Because how exactly is it relevant? This isn’t a documentary FFS. It’s a dramatized representation of a nutty but effective CIA action. The fact that the Iranians are prop pieces is almost to be expected. Because the movie is not about Iran.

    1. The author is buttmad that the movie does not genuflect to her political narrative.

      1. Pretty much. And I am all for understanding a country and realizing not every Iranian is a crazy mullah. But I really don’t think defending the hostage takers is the hill you want to die on.

  4. Who cares about embassies being seized, we had a consulate burnt to the ground and four diplomats killed and the US government does not seem to care much about it. I think its already “old news”.

    1. Only Fox News cares about dead diplomats, so nothing to see here, move along.

  5. But “Argo” is UNFAIR to Iranians. Jian Ghomeshi told me so.

    1. And Inglourious Basterds is unfair to Germans.

      Some people just need a 2×4 upside the head.

    2. He’s wrong that there aren’t any sympathetic Iranians in Argo. There is one. The housekeeper. She covers for the American “guests” in the house – lies to an Iranian security agent about how long they have been there, says “everyone in this house is a friend of Iran” – and is seen fleeing to Iraq as they escape.

      1. The one wrong impression the movie makes is that it makes it look like the Islamists took over from day one of the revolution. That is not true. Originally some fairly liberal people took over. Banisadr was the first post revolutionary President of Iran and he was not a religious fanatic. It wasn’t until later that the fanatics impeached him and implemented the dictatorship they have today.

        1. Yeah, the movie was about freeing the hostages, and almost all the Iranians (with the prominent exception John noted) wound up being people hostile to America, because the story pretty much required focusing on the oppressors.

          The Iranians who stayed home and didn’t storm the embassy and sympathized with the Americans weren’t in the movie, because that wouldn’t have advanced the plot much.

        2. Kind of similar to how the Bolsheviks took over in Russia. They were a radical minority faction of many that helped oust the Tsar, but because they were the most willing ot use violence they were able to seize control in the power vacuum that followed.

          1. No one thought the Islamists would matter. That is why the Shah didn’t kill them. He didn’t think they were a threat. But a small group with weapons, fanatical dedication, and no morals can do a lot.

  6. as such, the film has a special responsibility to give a fair representation of the truth.

    No, the filmmakers have a responsibility to tell an interesting story, and thus turn a profit on their venture. Period.

    And they appear to have succeeded. Argo is a great movie, IMO. Well worth watching. Oh, and if you do, pay attention to the quick flash at the end where they note in passing that all the hostages were freed on January 20, 1981, while not mentioning the significance of that day — Reagan’s inauguration — followed by a voiceover by Jimmy Carter saying that “we” freed the hostages.

    I may have been the only one in the theatre that picked up on that tidbit of propaganda.

  7. Argo’s a great movie, but it sounds like I’d enjoy “The Iran Job.” Different movies, different intentions.

  8. I’m not sure the movie paints the unfair picture you are saying it does. The opening montage did highlight the U.S. complicity in the coup that overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, and one of the characters in a scene with the chief of staff pointed out how the hostage-taking could be seen as the Iranians getting back at the U.S. for the coup.

    I guess the movie could have done a better job explaining why the United States couldn’t just hand over the Shah, but whatever.

  9. These sound like typical formulaic Hollywood films. A little unusual for being set in Iran but I’m pretty sure I’ll give both of them a pass.
    I advise anyone interested in Iran to see Iranian films. The quality of films produced during the period of the Islamic Republic is amazingly good. The government, doing exactly the opposite of what any good Libertarian might advise, put heavy restrictions on foreign films, opening up space for like likes of Kiarostami (good for any intellectuals out there) and Masjidi (family oriented pictures) to perfect their art. Anyone who appreciates Italian neorealism will immediately fall in love with recent Iranian cinema. Try bittorrent rather than waiting for a screening at your local theatre.

    1. Great more derivative crap from foreigners that is only “cool” because it was last done by Hollywood 50 years ago and is subtitled.

      Pfffft.

      1. The greatest film made 50 years ago was undoubtedly Lawrence of Arabia. It even won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1963. (Maybe the best film ever.)It was not made in Hollywood, however,but made in Great Britain and various locations in the middle east. Made by foreigners, yes, but WITHOUT subtitles!

        Comparing Lawrence of Arabia with recent Iranian cinema is an odd exercise, and aside from the middle eastern setting, have little in common. Their differences are more illuminating. We’ve already established the most important difference, that Iranian cinema is subtitled, while Lawrence is not. Aside from this, we should note that Iranian film often use amateur actors, have extremely low budgets, and is subject to all manner of government censorship and taboo which the film-makers manage to surmount with subtlety and ingenuity. Only someone totally ignorant of Iranian cinema would characterize it as “cool.” It is not cool but rather almost painfully sincere and earnest.

        Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that exposure to Hollywood films of the early 60s gives you insight into recent Iranian cinema. Italian films of the early 50s on the other hand…

  10. After the hostage crisis ends in 1981, fast-forward to the summer of 2008, when indie documentary The Iran Job shows Kevin Sheppard, a basketball player from the U.S cheap nfl jerseys. Virgin Islands, preparing to play a season on southern Iran’s A.S. Shiraz team. The owners have hired Kevin to flip the team’s low national ranking, but we also watch him cross language barriers and develop unlikely friendships with locals along the way.

    While the contemporary conflict with Iran forms the outside context by which we can watch Argo without consciously discussing a modern American retaliation, The Iran Job explicitly addresses the possibility. From beginning to end, the documentary juxtaposes Sheppard’s interactions with ordinary Iranians and the strife between his country’s government and theirs, taking a decidedly more bottom-up perspective than Argo’s almost cheap MLB jerseys exclusive attention to a conflict that was, at heart, between governments.

    1. The greatest film made 50 years ago was undoubtedly Lawrence of Arabia. It even won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1963. (Maybe the best film ever.)It was not made in Hollywood, however,but made in Great Britain and various locations in the middle east. Made by foreigners, yes, but WITHOUT subtitles!

      Comparing Lawrence of Arabia with recent Iranian cinema is an odd exercise, and aside from the middle eastern setting, have little in common. Their differences are more illuminating. We’ve already established the most important difference, that Iranian cinema is subtitled, while Lawrence is not. Aside from this, we should note that Iranian film often use amateur actors, have extremely low budgets, and is subject to all manner of government censorship and taboo which the film-makers manage to surmount with cheap nfl jerseys subtlety and ingenuity. Only someone totally ignorant of Iranian cinema would characterize it as “cool.” It is not cool but rather almost painfully sincere and earnest.

  11. Iranian society has been characterized as a field of paradoxes before, and The Iran Job certainly contributes to this view? I think this is a good thing that Hollywood like Iran

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