For the last couple of years, we’ve gotten together with our neighbors Don and Ellen once a month to watch a movie together. We alternate: one month at our house, the next month at theirs, with the host couple picking the film. It was all Patty’s idea; she refers to it as “double date night,” which gives you some idea of what a wild night life we lead.
This month was at our house, and we’d picked Argo, the 2012 film about a scheme to free six Americans trapped in the Canadian embassy in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. The film is based on a real event, with a CIA “extractor”--played by Ben Affleck--who comes up with the crazy idea of getting the six out of Iran by pretending they’re Canadians scouting out locations for a science fiction film in the Iranian desert.
The film’s a thriller, and when it was over, we sat there for a minute, in that post-movie limbo where you transition back into the reality around you. Ellen was the first to come out of movie-world. “I don’t get it,” she said.
“What? What don’t you get?” asked Don.
“Well, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?” she said.
I was finishing off the half-popped kernels left in the popcorn bowl, but I looked up at her. “Oh come on, Ellen,” I said. “What’s so hard to figure out? Ben Affleck gets a medal at the end. He’s a hero. He keeps his cool and rescues all six of these very frightened people when mobs of furious Iranians surround them and armed Iranian militants are everywhere. It’s cowboys versus Indians, white hats versus black hats, good guys versus bad guys. Ben Affleck is John Wayne.”
““But don’t you remember the opening minutes of the film?” she asked.
She caught me scraping out the last of the cheese dip with a nacho, and I waved the nacho at her until I could respond. “I missed a few minutes there at the beginning. I was out in the kitchen microwaving another bag of popcorn,” I told her. “What about the opening?”
“I think I see where she’s coming from,” said Patty thoughtfully. “You only missed a couple of minutes, Ace, but that was where a narrator gave us the historical context for the Iran hostage crisis. We never saw her, we just heard her voice. She said that Iran had a democratically elected Prime Minister, but when he called for the nationalization of Iranian oil, the CIA and British M16 organized a military coup in 1953 that kicked him out and installed the Shah as a dictator. The Shah paid back the favor by signing over 40% of Iran’s oil fields to U.S. companies. The Shah’s regime was oppressive, brutal, and corrupt, which didn’t matter to the U.S. so long as he served our interests and our oil companies controlled their oil production.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Don. “It’s coming back to me now. The Islamic revolution took everybody by surprise. Iranians rose up and booted out the Shah. He was a tyrant that everybody hated, and only U.S. military and financial aid and a vicious secret police force kept him on the throne. With the revolution, the Shah fled to the U.S., and the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. That’s the point where the movie switched to ‘live action,’ with the U.S. embassy being overrun.”
“That’s where I came in,” I nodded. “I’m amazed you guys paid any attention to all that historical stuff. It wasn’t really important. It was just a quick way of giving us background for the real story. Pass me that bowl of mixed nuts, will you?”
“Why do you say the historical stuff wasn’t important? It’s all the real story, isn’t it?” said Ellen. “History doesn’t start or stop where we want it to. It sounds to me, judging from the background stuff, as if we were the bad guys who were mostly responsible for the situation Ben Affleck and the embassy staff were in. We bribed and coerced the Iranian army to get a democratically elected leader kicked out and thrown in jail, then underwrote the Shah, who had anybody he mistrusted tortured and shot. He was our guy. Most Iranians hated him, and we drove off with Iran’s oil. If Iran had backed a military coup in the U.S., installed a friendly torturer as a dictator, and siphoned off billions of dollars worth of our assets, you don’t think people in the U.S. might feel a tad bit resentful?”
“But Ben Affleck didn’t hurt anybody,” I protested. “And the people from our embassy he helped looked like nice people. They were terrified, and they had every reason to be. They were surrounded by Iranians screaming for their blood and toting automatic weapons.”
“You know, I think I remember reading somewhere that the Iranian revolution was non-violent originally,” said Don, his face scrunched up as he tried to grab something that had almost slipped away. “I guess that got lost in the desire to settle old scores, or maybe to make sure the revolution wasn’t undermined by the people behind the Shah who were still around.”
We were all quiet for a minute. “People like the CIA? Like the U.S. manipulators of their government, operating out of our embassy? Like Iranians who were secretly on our payroll?” Patty ventured.
“That would be my guess,” said Don.
“Do you remember that scene in the bazaar where the angry crowd is pressing in on the six Americans, and a gray-bearded man keeps yelling ‘The bullet that killed my son came from America!’ or something like that?” said Ellen.
I’d forgotten about that, but now that she mentioned it....
“That could very well have been the reality,” said Ellen. “Not just for him, but for thousands of other people.”
“It makes me think of those scenes of panicked embassy officials rushing to shred documents when Iranians were swarming over the compound’s walls,” said Patty.
“That’s probably pretty standard operating procedure for embassies,” I pointed out.
“Especially if you have information in your files about who on your staff is actually CIA, who the Iranians are that are collaborating with you, and how Washington is involved in propping up the Shah’s regime and helping target people for the Shah to torture or murder,” said Ellen rather sharply.
“So are you claiming that the Iranian militants were the good guys and Ben Affleck was a bad guy?” I said indignantly.
Ellen looked frustrated. “What Tony Mendez--the guy Ben Affleck played--did was brave, and he probably saved six people’s lives. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.”
“Well what are you saying?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, looking even more frustrated. “Tony Mendez was part of the CIA, and the CIA did horrible things to Iran. He probably didn’t do anything wrong personally, but the CIA and the U.S. government certainly did. The same thing could be true for the six people who worked at the U.S. embassy. They may not have done anything evil themselves, but the whole U.S. presence there was to sustain an evil. So Mendez keeps these six U.S. citizens from being the victims of vengeance, and that’s great. I always thought vengeance was ugly, and justice was beautiful. But sometimes now I can’t tell them apart. Where’s the justice here?”
“What do you mean ‘Where’s the justice?’” asked Don.
“We never admitted any wrongdoing, never took any responsibility for the atrocities committed on our dime and on our behalf,” said Ellen. “Why do we end up feeling so good about ourselves at the end of the movie? Escaping vengeance is one thing; skipping out on responsibility is another. The Iranians are closing in on Mendez and the six while the film is building to a climax, and there’s one hair-breadth escape after another. Their airplane finally takes off, with armored vehicles in hot pursuit all the way down the runway, and we breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate. But as they get away, it seems as if we all got away with something.”
“You know, now that you mention it, I’m thinking about that joke the movie guys, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who helped put together the fake movie scheme, kept coming up with: ‘Argo f**k yourself.” said Don. “In a way, that is the message.”
“Part of the problem is the power of stories, isn’t it?” said Ellen. “We get more than two decades of sordid history as two minutes of dry facts. Then we get two hours up-close of a daring rescue and the bravery and the overwhelming relief when they’re safe, all with real faces and visible emotions. What if instead of this rescue, the story had been about that father whose son was murdered with an American bullet? What if we’d seen all of that played out, and watched his family suffering?”
“Hey, look, we just came together to watch a movie and have a good time,” I complained. “This is getting a little too deep for me.”
“Ace, sometimes I worry that you’ll drown in a puddle,” Patty said.
© Tony Russell, 2014