A Hollywood Rescue Mission

Ben Affleck in a still from Argo (2012)

Ben Affleck in a still from Argo (2012)

A recurring joke in Argo is that no one knows what ‘Argo’ means. It is the title of a script for a Flash Gordon-style space opera, but beyond that no one has a clue. At a read-through in the Beverley Hills Hilton, a grizzled and jaded Hollywood producer tries to answer a journalist’s questions but is clearly flummoxed. What is the problem? Has he not even read the script?

The point is that no one needs to read the script because no one is ever going to make the film. The story of how the CIA set up a film company in order to smuggle six diplomats out of revolutionary Tehran is retold as a stylish political thriller from actor/director Ben Affleck. In November 1979, the US embassy in Tehran was seized by militant pro-revolution students. Fifty-two US citizens were held hostage for 444 days, but in the chaos of the first hours of the crisis, six members of the US diplomatic staff managed to flee the embassy and found sanctuary at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The CIA had to figure out how to spirit the six away before the Iranians noticed that they were missing. The idea of buying bicycles and pointing the stranded diplomats in the direction of the Turkish border was rejected, leaving only one other idea: “The best bad idea we have. By far,” as a CIA man tells the US secretary of state. The CIA teamed up with a Hollywood special effects man and established a Canadian film company. The idea was to convince the world they were making a kind of Aladdin-in-Space style adventure and that they hoped to film in the central souk of downtown Tehran. A CIA man, played by Affleck, flies in to Iran alone and flies out with the diplomats, all now credited with jobs in the film production. The fictitious film is entitled Argo, and the film telling the story of Argo is also called . . . Argo. Okay. So far, so clear. But what does ‘Argo’ mean?

[inset_left]The CIA teamed up with a Hollywood special effects man and established a Canadian film company. The idea was to convince the world they were making a kind of Aladdin-in-Space style adventure [/inset_left]

Argo has come out at a tricky time, politically. The Iranian uranium-enrichment program edges ever closer to the point at which it becomes possible to make nuclear warheads. Israel is entering into an election cycle and its prime minister is making bellicose threats of air strikes on Iran while goading the US to act first. Iran’s influence over the governments or opposition political parties in Syria, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain is causing palpitations and complicating the narrative of the Arab Spring. All these factors are combining to create a highly feverish climate. This might be a great time to reflect calmly upon Iran; unfortunately, there are very few calm Iranians in Affleck’s film. This is a country caught in the white heat of a revolution, powered by angry young men, fired-up, gun-toting and very, very shouty. But even beyond these issues, there is one other, all-surpassing reason why a film about the Iranian hostage crisis is politically sensitive now. And that reason is the US presidential election. The election was in full swing when Argo hit the theaters this October.

More than any other issue, the Iranian hostage crisis destroyed the re-election prospects of President James Carter in November 1980. The crisis was a year old by the day of the election. Over twelve months, pictures of panic-stricken relatives had filled newspapers. Images of Iranian students waving guns at the windows of the US embassy or burning flags in its courtyard appeared in every news cycle. Perhaps the most memorable feature of the crisis was the appearance of yellow ribbons, a new phenomenon at the time. Watching US television, it often seemed that every tree, every veranda, every door was decorated with a slip of yellow ribbon, inspired by a folk-pop song entitled “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree”. The ribbon was intended as a visible memento of a missing family, though they ultimately came to mean something else entirely: they became a symbol of a failing government, powerless to free US citizens held hostage by people who absolutely hated them halfway around the world.

In the elections of November 1980, the US turned to the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, who ran under the campaign slogan “Morning in America.” The easy-going Reagan, an elderly throwback to the feel-good years of the 1950s, promised a new dawn following the nightmare Carter years. Today, President Carter is a respected octogenarian human rights defender, but thirty-five years ago, Carter represented a progressive, even counter-cultural United States. In the 1980 election Reagan was, in effect, promising to turn the clock back on a liberal experiment that had failed, and a retreat back to the comfortable certainties that had made the US—in Republican eyes—the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’ The people behind the making of Argo are enthusiastic supporters of the Democratic Party and President Obama, and to revive memories of Carter’s devastating defeat at this time seems odd—reckless, even. The producers are George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who are jointly responsible for Good Night and Good Luck and The Men Who Stare at Goats, two of the most impeccably liberal films to have emerged over the past decade. So why did they risk bringing repressed memories of defeat to the surface just as Obama was fighting for the re-election that eluded Carter? The answer might be as simple as the fact that it was Hollywood that saved the day. Tinsel Town brought the diplomats home. Argo tells the story of film-makers and spooks working hand-in-hand to make an all-American success . . . and even with the best imagination in the world, there really cannot be too many other examples of such close co-operation.

In the years since Reagan’s victory, the standoff between liberal and traditional values has solidified into the so-called ‘Culture Wars,’ with Hollywood on the one side and strict interpretations of Protestantism on the other. Argo depicts a time when Hollywood was not regarded as an enemy by the conservative right. President Reagan, of course, was always proud of Hollywood and of his earlier career as a film star. By turning back the clock, Argo successfully argues that Hollywood is the backbone of the real United States: the source of its courage, its principles and its devil-may-care bravery. Without Hollywood, would the rest of the world even care much about the States?

[inset_left]By turning back the clock, Argo successfully argues that Hollywood is the backbone of the real United States[/inset_left]

The specter of the Iranian hostage crisis flickered briefly in this November’s election. The US ambassador to Libya was killed by insurgents on a visit to Benghazi under circumstances that remain murky. Questions continue about whether the assassination was planned: Was it essentially a flash mob? Was Al-Qaeda involved, or were the attackers disaffected Libyans? Did the embassy have sufficient security? Fox News relentlessly covered the death of the ambassador throughout the presidential election campaign. They did good journalistic work, digging up new revelations and pressing for answers—as well as poor journalistic work, attempting to whip up fear and conspiracies. Yet despite their efforts, Benghazi never became an issue in the way the Iranian hostage crisis had been. Instead, voters in the US opted for a second term for a black president. Moreover, they came out in favor of other one-time counter-culture causes: for the liberalization of marriage laws to benefit gays; for the election of non-Christian candidates from the Hindu, Muslim, and gay communities; and perhaps most surprising for a relaxation of laws on marijuana. Perhaps this is what that mysterious word ‘Argo’ really means: victory in the culture wars.

Subscribe to the discussion