Hollywood celebrates itself — of course it's a fiction

Argo 2012

Dir. Ben Affleck

By Peter Hulm

By now everyone should know that the Oscar-winning movie for best picture is an almost complete fabrication, down to the story it tells around the title, Argo. If not, check out this Slate article or this Middle East view from New York which quotes a lot of American journalists who trashed Argo's fantasies. Or consult imdb's list of goofs.

Perhaps the Oscar winner took its inspiration from The Great Escape, that fabulously lucrative and ludicrous World War II movie about U.S. soldiers leading a massive prisoner of war escape that didn't in fact involve Americans. After all, war and international tension are all about making money.

The edge-of-your seat Wild West/Mack Sennett duel between the Iranian "revolutionaries" on a pickup truck and the escaping U.S. staff on a speeding airliner didn't take place at all (Duh!). The staff went through the airport early in the morning without any challenge. Then they sat on the tarmac because the aircraft had engine trouble. And no, children did not put together pictures of the staff from the remains of shredded photos.

No wonder the Iranians were furious. Even the Canadian Ambassador who, with his staff, was the real hero of the exploit, thought it was unfair to Iran.

Surely George Clooney as producer and Ben Affleck as producer-director-star were not playing along with U.S. foreign policy to put pressure on Iran as bad guys in the U.S.-Iranian nuclear standoff?

My guess is they were trying to redress some of the opprobrium heaped on President Jimmy Carter for inaction and failing to rescue the other hostages by force, which may have lost him the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan.

Reality has to have stars and scripts

What Argo gave to Hollywood was a chance for the cinema industry to celebrate itself in the same way as the Oscar ceremonies themselves.

Bubblegum heroics just make a film more prizeworthy. The only fully written character is a complete invention, the Hollywood producer played by Alan Arkin who put the package together. In fact this was a minor part of the effort to keep the U.S. officials out of the hands of the Iranian revolutionary guards.

No guns, thank you

Even surface plausibility is flouted several times in the nail-biting scenes and echoes every third-rate Hollywood thriller that has to show disaster looming at any moment:

— The producers are delayed in getting back to their office to answer a crucial phone call by a film company using the area between them and the office.

— The revolutionary guards rattle a locked gate stopping them from getting onto the tarmac at the climax (they couldn't shoot the locks off as in every other blockbuster?).

— Would Iranian revolutionaries be completely unfazed by a film crew technician who spoke perfect Farsi? Perhaps, since they grinned like village idiots at the cartoonish storyboards produced to get the escapees through a tough situation in the plot.

In fact, the film-makers practice on moviegoers exactly the same kind of deceptions as the U.S. secret service and Hollywood characters deploy against the Iranians.

Except that the spectators are supposed to enjoy the manipulation. The Iranians, of course, are humourless without exception.

Trust me, says Hollywood

As a gauge of its fidelity to the clichés of Hollywood tradition, it even has a variation on the "trust me" scene delivered as always at a time when no-one in their right mind would trust the person who uttered such a command.

This time one of the cardboard U.S. players says he does not trust the C.I.A. officer. But don't worry. He just says it so that at the end he can approach the agent and thrust forward a hand in gratitude.

Such devices count as clever variations on an essential scene in today's Hollywood, which no longer has the courage of its own clichés.

Like son, like father

Naturally, the CIA agent is given a "dramatic" back story to make him more "interesting" to the audience. Separated from his wife, he talks on the phone to his son as they watch television together in separate addresses. That gives him the idea for Argo, says the film.

In fact, it seems, the agent and his wife were separated but on such good terms that she drove him to the airport to head off on his mission (which lasted something like a day and a half rather than a suspenseful three days).

And, of course, he had to go against the orders of the CIA chiefs to call off the mission (not true), on the grounds that he had a moral commitment to the U.S. staff who needed to be extricated.

It doesn't make sense for the chiefs to jeopardize the lives of the staff because they planned to rescue the others. But never mind.

Writing out the biggest heroes

For those spoilsports who insist on caring, the full story was told at least 15 years ago in video interviews now available on YouTube. These make clear the biggest risk was run by a couple who were written out of the script, and the Guyanian wife of the officer most involved was in real danger because she had no diplomatic immunity. They were spirited out of Teheran before the others left and spoke of feeling they were betraying the others by flying out first. A real couple to celebrate.

What Argo gives us is a CIA "dissident" hero who receives a medal that is immediately taken back and kept secret: i.e., all those occasions when U.S. citizens are pulled from the fires of international politics might have a heroic CIA story behind them that we cannot yet know. Believe.

The truth is entertaining

When we do learn the truth, you can be sure it is going to be entertaining. Tell us about Oliver North and Iran-Contra*, Guatemala and its history of violence since the U.S. overthrew Arbenz. I'll bet even the Afghanistan quagmire is going to be fun. Working title: Those Incredible Incredible Taliban!

The psychologist Ed S. Tan has spoken of films as offering audiences an escape into fantasy "laying aside the oppressive rationality of everyday life" (in Emotion and the structure of narrative film, 996:20).

What is the oppressive rationality that Argo spectators and Oscar voters have to escape? Well, for once, the Iranian authorities just won't give in to transparent U.S. bullying over their nuclear power programme. Don't they understand? Of course, Iran, if the U.S. did invade, would make Iraq seem like an afternoon picnic, compared to the logistical difficulties of keeping control over the vast interior of Iran.

This is not the kind of rationality our infantile phantasizing minds want to hear.

When you expect politics to deliver the same kinds of satisfaction as cartoonish fictions, it is liable to make you angry with those who refuse to pander to your dream world.

Argo pretends it can work the other way round, too: its fictions are all we need to enjoy the world as it is in reality. Let's hope the movie audiences never find out the truth.

Film critic Steve Dillon asserted in 2006: "Classical Hollywood cinema is typically characterized by 'invisibility' and 'transparency', by a continual refusal to acknowledge that the film is actually a film" (The Solaris effect: art & artifice in contemporary American film: 2). But he admits that others argue that "even classical Hollywood film is, after all, full of devices that call attention to the cinematic apparatus" (3).

Suspend disbelief at any price

Argo's devices situate themselves more at the level of plot and narrative than technical apparatus. But though a pastiche of every other escape movie, it does not expect us to recognize and applaud the imitations but to go along with its fabrications.

Ed Tan observes that we can suspend disbelief in incredible situations so that the fantastical elements don't interfere with our pleasure (81): "Viewers can maximize their pleasure by not resisting the emotion, simply doing what the film expects of them."

So is it all about involvement, tension and its release? — the elements identified by Ed Tan as characterizing the traditional popular film, with the viewer seeking the most intense and abundant range of emotions (See his pages 37 and 39).

Simply stating his terms makes clear its inadequacy as a theory of film. Others have suggested popular film offers "informal schooling in the dominant ideology" (Tan 22), though this fails to deal with all those big-revenue films that challenge, overtly or covertly, the status quo.

Cartoon politics

More interesting, in view of Affleck's commentary about gathering information on what really happened in Tehran, is his decision to toss the facts away, and even in the opening montage, emphasize the cartoon Hollywood comic view of the world (see earlier link to DVD commentary).

Any viewer who wanted could have learned the truth before seeing the film (as I did), and then examined the movie as it unrolled with an awareness of its massaging of our emotions, no matter how little self-irony Affleck showed in his commentary. He speaks blithely of importing an experience he had in the Congo to make a general point about Third World nations.

Affleck majored in Middle East studies at university. Though he did not complete the studies, his deliberate rewriting of history and 'sexing up' of the truth cannot be put down to ignorance.

In a way, this is Hollywood getting its own back on politics, where 'sexing up' is a way of life.

It is difficult for me to imagine a person with background knowledge watching this film alone or that they would not switch it off and walk out in disgust at the manipulations deployed to achieve its transparently desired effects.

However, watching it in an internationally aware group, as I did, we all stayed through to the end (see Tan on emotional contagion, p79), though the final chase evoked astonished laughter at the obviousness of the staging. If you had any doubts that this story was not to be taken seriously, this surely quashed them.

The joys of being an audience

Perhaps Argo was really about being an audience and the joys of being an audience together, scrunching our tissues in excitement, daydreaming together, enjoying the emotional power of powerlessness, and cheering for a spy thriller turned emotional drama turned children's comedy adventure (the "film makers" back in Hollywood) turned western turned romance (Affleck-spy reunited with wife). How could it not win an award, no matter how perfunctorily made?

Tan writes of fiction film viewers: "We are not out to spoil the game on the contrary, as a rational consumer we will try to get the maximum emotional potential out of the film" (78).

Affleck himself is not so much an actor as a blank presence (no drawback to Hollywood fantasies) now a movie star, a guarantor that what takes place (in his own films at least) will have a happy ending as much for the audience as the person he plays. In true Hollywood fashion, all rewards come to the star, and the audience can feel it has invested its emotions profitably in identifying with and supporting his concerns.

But Affleck's reliance on the cliches of adventure films (without the action spectacle of Indiana Jones) betrays a (post)modernist lack of confidence in the capacity to arouse audiences except through the most conventional means, despite the richly rewarded nods to tradition.

Guilt is bad

No-one in the film (as distinct from in the real drama) pays the emotional price of their actions. In pseudo-psychoanalytical Hollywood, all guilt is bad: look at the lies of the producer, the only major character who seems to enjoy being himself, no matter how unscupulous.

Similarly, the agent's separation from his family gives him the idea of a fake film — it was one of three scenarios presented to the U.S. Staff, which they chose as most plausible. But it is not linked to the determination to do something for the 'captives'. This kind of psychologism is out of court, as are the grounds for the students-guards' anger.

What Argo celebrates is infantile regression (the comicbook storyboards and the costume party are the clues) to a childhood world where playing at being a film crew is more euphoric than the real thing (remember the scene of frustration with the actual studio workers).

Be a kid

What makes the Grand Bazaar disturbance around the 'crew' (another invention) so thrilling is that their playing is taken seriously. Significantly, we are given no indication of what the crowd is saying. Why should adults get angry about kids playing? Kids never know.

The Vienna circle can also point to the film's somewhat irrelevant insistence on Affleck's relationship with his son — physically distant but emotionally close: they watch the same schlocky movies on TV. That is, he understands how to be a kid. I'd say he also knows how to play spy games, but that is clearly not the emotional tone of his scenes at work.

For Viennese doctors, of course, this tone is just a screen for the real psychic satisfaction he is enjoying (it's fun but he has to disguise this by feeling anxious and responsible — the more anxious and conflicted the better). Reconciliation with his wife is the reward for playing the game.

Meanwhile, the Iranian maid who really saved them all from the Revolutionary Guards goes into uncertain exile. Or is it, once more, there in the film just to save us from feeling bad?

* In case you forgot, President Reagan sold arms to Iran, against the wishes of Congress and his public declarations, to buy the freedom of the other Tehran hostages, as well as to Nicaragua's ugly Contras. Aargh! Go f*** the public.


Tan, Ed S. 1996. Emotion and the structure of narrative film: film as an emotion machine. Translated by Barbara Fasting. LEA - communication series. Mahwah, N.J: Erlbaum. ISBN: 0805814094.

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