Argo: Orientalism, Globalization & the Sci-Fi Phenomenon of the 70’s By Rolando Vega, Serena Dixon, Emma Huntington, and Ashley Wood-Tiner
How did Argo (Affleck, 2012) storm the awards season this year and rise to win Best Film at the Academy Awards? Was it the true to life events it depicted within its scenes? Or was it the unique core of the film that revolved around a sci-fi film within a film wrapped up in a suspense/thriller? One can be sure that it didn’t win because of its adherence to the real events that inspired the film.
Argo is loosely based on the Tehran hostage crisis of November 1979. Affleck was inspired by The Master of Disguise written by Tony Mendez, however, Argo seems to be more of a complex reconstruction of events rather than a direct adaptation from a book. Since it’s release, Argo has faced both criticism and praise. Hollywood is known for taking great liberties when an adaptation is made, often straying very far from the source material, and Argo’s reconstruction of life doesn’t diverge from this habit.
The depiction of the people and characters in the film is the most obvious manipulation of reality that Affleck implements. First, the Iranian people that are pictured throughout the whole film are dehumanized to be one-note characters that represent the evil within the country. The crowds are faceless as mostly wide-shots focus on large groups of people in the beginning of the film when the U.S. Embassy is invaded. By doing this, Affleck essentially blankets all of the Iranian people in the film with a label of “the bad guys”. When the audience is treated to closer shots of the rioting crowd, it is only to further this dehumanization and to focus on the destructive tasks they are doing to the embassy or their furious yelling and displaying of weapons. The dehumanization of Iranians climaxes when the group of Americans reaches the airport and they are met by a cunning and fierce adversary: “Azizi Checkpoint #3”. This soldier isn’t even given a character name in the credits but serves an antagonist that encompasses the full dehumanization and evil blanketed over the Iranian people throughout the film. With swift action and emotionless gaze, the soldier does his best to detain the American protagonists but is ultimately defeated when the West, Hollywood itself, deceives him and undermines his efforts with a faux phone call conversation. The overall dehumanized portrayal of the Iranian people in Argo is used as a cheap storytelling tool to advance plot, but also regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, orientalism is weaved throughout the film as the West, in this case Hollywood, defeats the evil and dehumanized Middle Eastern country of Iran. Argo doesn’t end there in its “adaptation”.
Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a Latin American CIA operative that specializes in exfiltration. There is an issue here, however. Ben Affleck doesn’t look anything like the real Tony Mendez, save for his beard. It seems like this has some ethnocentric implications in the potential reception the film may receive in the global sphere. This aspect of Argo’s “adaptation” takes center stage, however, not many people have seemed to notice. Perhaps the fact that Affleck is the director distracts people from the fact that the cultural sensibilities are not being respected with the main character.
Also some aspects of the film contributed to the minimization of other countries’ roles in the historic mission. Viewers have pointed out several examples listed on imdb.com of moments where the film deviated from the truth. One of these examples involves the false negative portrayal of two countries, New Zealand and Britain. In the film:
“It is stated that both British and New Zealand embassies turned away the six, leaving the Canadian as their only refuge. In fact the British embassy did shelter them for a few days but it was agreed by everyone that the Canadian embassy was the most secure and suitable so they moved. A New Zealand official transported them and the British embassy helped other Americans trapped in the country at the time. Director Ben Affleck acknowledged that he intentionally deviated from the real events in order to quicken the pace and build up the tension,” ("Argo (2012) Trivia").
This is another example of Argo straying away from reality and creating a reconstructed reality that suited the needs of the film and of the filmmakers. Inadvertently, Affleck and the filmmakers also created a film that shows signs of orientalism, western-preference, and ethnocentrism.
This type of orientalism is not uncommon in films and the globalization of cinema can explain the presence of these common cultural maladies. The cinema of the 70’s was ripe with globalized cinema, especially with the advent of blockbusters like Star Wars in 1977. Massive crews composed of all sorts of nationalities would travel to different locations around world to help build these large films. Foreign landscapes were ready for exploitation in addition to the thousands of local extras featured in these films. Argo gives an accurate window into that era where the film industry was energized with the drive to make more of these larger, globalized films.
Argo also depicts the impact and buzz of science fiction films in the 70’s. The impact that science fiction films had on Hollywood and cinema of the 1970’s was instantly dramatic. The cultural shift towards the fantasy world, and a consumer obsession with all things alien, forever changed the film industry in Hollywood and its approach to filmmaking. Star Wars’ release in 1977 took sci-fi films from campy B-Movies to the respectable big leagues in no time flat. Before Star Wars introduced complex, deep characters with revolutionary special effects and immaculate mis en scene, sci-fi was all gimmicky robots and aliens. Star Wars opened the doors for an enormously loyal fan base of science fiction, and the film industry was willing to take risks on producing more sci-fi films, hoping to cash in on the next Star Wars.
Because of this sudden and intense pop culture obsession with sci-fi/fantasy films, the events that took place in 1980 in Iran happened at the perfect time to use Lord of Light as a cover. Lord of Light, the 1967 award-winning novel, written by Roger Zelazny, was the inspiration for the screenplay that Tony Mendez used to help Iranian hostages escape. Lord of Light was going to be a real film. In Argo the selection process of what screenplay to use as a cover was portrayed as just picking a script out of a discarded pile. In reality, the film Lord of Light had generated a lot of buzz for it’s planned theme park and the film in pre-production had many fans and supporters, but the production fell through. The worldwide interest in all things sci-fi laid the ground for the mission that Mendez would lead in Iran.
The location was also a key aspect. Seeing as how the physical desert environment in the Middle East could be seen as being alien-like or other-worldly (at least to Americans), a sci-fi movie was the perfect cover in the CIA mission. Argo’s whole approach to tricking the Iranians was founded on the common knowledge that films were being shot all over the world during that time. Parts of Star Wars itself were shot in Tunisia, a Northern African country in the Sahara Desert. Shooting a sci-fi film in Iran would not seem a far stretch from other countries that had already been used as settings for films.
In the end, regardless of the unintended implementations of orientalism, ethnocentrism and liberties taken with adapting true events, Argo is still somewhat of a pop-culture phenomenon. Ben Affleck led the way for the success of the film by starring and directing in it. His stardom helped propel the film into a larger cultural sphere that aided winning possibilities during the awards season. In addition to being a very successful satire and celebration of Hollywood and the resurrecting 1970s film industry, Argo was also able to implement other pop-culture giants in references to Star Wars and other big sci-fi movies of the 70s. The winning of Best Picture at the Academy Awards affirms Argo’s status as a film that drew in audiences enough and spellbound them with its own unique reconstruction of the past.