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.