Hollywood Goes To Iran

The fact that Ben Affleck is a schmuck does not mean he cannot produce or direct fine art.

We know the former because for some time our friend, the British writer and actor John Wight (‘Dreams That Die’ – 2013), was his body double. All day, every day in Hollywood, John would guard Affleck’s mark, act like him in innumerable rehearsals, without Affleck ever having nodded him a “thanks” or any gesture of appreciation.

Maybe he was in the zone, psyched up for his own performance? Alas, Affleck could not even manage a “hello” – “good morning” to his double off set.

We know the latter because we’ve seen “Town” and now we’ve seen “Argo”. Produced by Affleck and his buddy George Clooney, starring Affleck himself, who also directs, with Alan Arkan and John Goodman as veteran movie men.

Cinematically, it is a good and exciting film largely deserving its recent – mostly American patriotic – hype and heap of awards -albeit mostly from Western institutions. Content-wise, the movie is based on a true story, though but a snippet of a much larger one, namely the quarter of a century that the US buttressed the cruelest tyrant of them all.

The Shah of Persia was installed as a puppet ruler in Tehran after Washington and London organised, paid for and ultimately directed Operation Mongoose to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossaddegh. The PM after all nationalised ‘their’ oil that happened to lie under his country.

Under the Shah and his terrifying secret service – Savak – mass torture, rape and murder were the norm. Secular opposition to his rule was exiled and impotent. Religious opposition retired to the Bazaar and the mosque to nurse its wrath.

When Ayatollah Khomeini – whose audio cassette borne revolution had preceded him – returned from exile to a tumult of millions of supporters, there was no doubt that the Shah would have to flee. The town just was not big enough for both of them, and the Shah was running out of sheriffs. He fled to the US, riddled with cancer, rotten with money – billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.

Khomeini and his revolution, as George Bush might put it, were then “mis-underestimated”. By compounding their crime against Iran when US president Jimmy Carter gave the ailing Shah (and his money) political asylum, decades of animosity was  guaranteed. And the anti-imperialist anti-Zionist character of the Iranian revolution was hopelessly missed by the west who imagined Khomeini would not actually change Iran out of all recognition and that somehow there could be business as usual once the dust cleared. After all, the empires had dealt with Islamist revolutionaries before (and now, cf Syria) and had found them mainly obliging.

But these were a new type of Muslims. And Iranians in revolution, were a new type of people.

This background to the story was fairly depicted (minus the powerful image of Khomeini recording his audio tapes from Paris in the run up to the revolution) in, to the liking of Gayatri, a wonderful animation sequence at the beginning of the movie.

But it is not the background which will stay in the memory of most viewers by the end of it.

In the film’s foreground, Iranians become ranting, raving, literally salivating hangmen, torturers and all-round sadists while the Americans – escapees from the US embassy siege – hiding out in red-wine splendour at the Canadian Ambassador’s residence – are blinking, perplexed, “how could they do that to us, we were only trying to help” ingenues. Innocent bureaucrats or not, the US embassy itself was a nest of spies and was the centre of the Shah’s despotism. Its staff therefore accessories before and after the fact of a criminal conspiracy against the Iranian people.

Despite one’s self being caught in a 120-minute picture perceived from merely one end of the lens, it is difficult not to wish Affleck well as Tony Mendez, the Mexican-Italian-Irish (only the latter being the ancestral and apparent commonality with Affleck himself) CIA exfiltration specialist who hatches with Arkin and Goodman a clever plot to get the six American individuals out. It leaves George wondering if the CIA knew at the time that Iran was, and is still, a world capital of movies and that pretending the escapees were Canadian film people scouting out venues in the middle of a revolution for a sci-fi film, even starring half naked female Martians, was just the sort of crazy but true wheeze Iranians might go for?

Affleck drills the fugitive diplomats into their new persona in just 48 hours and yet it seems unlikely that such a large group of North Americans can possibly be sprung. When the CIA brings the Secretary of State options, which include bicycling to the Turkish border three days away, the sci-fi movie “Argo” begins to look like the least bad option of all.

The fictionalised snippet of a true story leaves the North American countries as heroes of the 444-day crisis – in which not a single American hostage was hurt or killed – whilst leaving its severe humiliation aside, never mind the victory and 8 billion US$ unfrozen assets on the Iranian part.

The operation was classified until 1997, thus none of us ever heard of it before that and few of us since. It is a classic example of how mountainous things can look in the historical moment yet such a molehill looking back. But that molehill has been made into a terrific film and we have to thank Affleck for that. Even if he has difficulty with that word himself.

Words by Gayatri & George