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Hollywood Demonizes Iran Again
In his narrative on "soft power," Harvard professor Joseph Nye has enlightened us about the powerful American movie industry as a source of American "ideological attraction" that complements the Western superpower's "hard power." This means that instead of pure entertainment or mere artistic creations, Hollywood movies function as propaganda supplements, often by providing a binary image of "good Americans" versus the "hostile others" on US's enemy list.
Naturally, with Iran topping that list for the past 33 years, it is hardly surprising that Hollywood has dutifully dished out a growing number of movies that recycle the enemy image of Iran, thus warranting this author's observation seven years ago: ""Hollywood's tall walls of exclusion and discrimination have yet to crumble when it comes to the movie industry's persistent misrepresentation of Iranians and their collective identity immersed in a long thread of history." (1)
Thus, the common thread running through the Iran-bashing movies, including Not Without My Daughter (1991), Peacemaker (1997), Syriana (2005), 300 (2006), and most recently Argo (2012), that is, the negative stereotype of the Iranian "other," as basically overemotional, angry and diabolically anti-western, save the westernized Iranians; this is basically a familiar tale of Western imperialism using its artistic prowess to inculcate an inferior and enemy image of Iran to serve its hegemonic interests -- that include a frontal assault on the meaning and integrity of the Islamic revolution in Iran, which prides itself as the progenitor of an Islamic awakening throughout the Middle East.
Indeed, comparing Not Without My Daughter with Argo through critical lenses simply alerts us to a frozen time, as if in the twenty year separating the two movies, commonly focusing on Americans' escape from Iran, Hollywood has learned nothing new, still immersed in its ideological wheel of self-aggrandizement of American hero-worship, also reflected in other similar movies such as The Kingdom (see the author's review of "the Failed Kingdom." (2) But, if in The Kingdom we were treated to a parade of "cult of FBI-worship," in Argo it is CIA's turn, to be showered with the immense love and affection, ostensibly deserving an agency that pulled off the disguised departure of 6 Americans during the Iran hostage crisis; both films reek of intense Islamophobia however, neither deserving serious intellectual attention, given their conventional genre, predictable scripts, and lack of creative imagination, Hollywood's main malady nowadays.
For sure, the connection between film and history is complex and is, as this author has noted elsewhere, perhaps beyond the pale of movie industry to "getting it right," particularly when it comes to covering revolutions. (3) But, when it comes to Iran and the Islamic revolution, there is no dearth of attempts to deciphering and comprehending it as US Department of State would wish it,i.e., essentially as America's chief post-cold war bete noire, anything else would be cognitive dissonance.
Little surprise, then, that like an earlier American movie, On Wings of Eagles (1986), starring Burt Lancaster, also dealing with American hostages' escape from Iran, the new movie Argo is fundamentally bereft of any new insights about Iran, neither film even minimally capable of going beyond the facade of angry anti-American crowds and humanizing the Iranians. Instead, a persistent de-humanization of Iranians is detectable as these movies' sub-text that, from the vantage point of the Muslim and third world audience around the globe, needs to be de-coded and deconstructed, as an integral aspect of the third world culture of resistance (transcending Iran).
In fairness to Argo, its opening scenes that seeks to contextualize the US-Iran conflict, by referring to US's overthrow of the democratically-elected Iranian government in 1953 and replacing it with a ruthless and corrupt monarchy, is a tiny step forward that, unfortunately, is effectively neutralized in the rest of movie's relentless Iran-bashing, primarily in the form of various over-voice narratives vilifying the post-revolutionary order, as well as even more (de-humanizing) card board images of angry Iranians, confronting the "good" and "innocent" Americans in the streets, bazaar, airport, and so on.
As a result, if this movie and its purportedly "liberal" producers had aimed to create a filmic vehicle to educate the younger generation of American movie-goers a thing or two about American foreign policy, notwithstanding the Arab Spring's downfall of multiple American-backed dictatorships, then the end product is at best half-satisfying, given Argo's inescapable main flaws mentioned above that, in effect, reduce it to the level of yet another artifact of the American ideological apparatuses. This is so because Argo's subtle critique of past American interventionism is checkmated by the not to subtle reproduction of the hostile image of the Iranian "Muslim other," who elicit no sympathy whatsoever but rather plenty of scorn and hatred by average western viewers exposed to their vile angry images on the silver screen. What is conspicuously absent is a genuine plea for understanding, compassion, empathy for the suffering of an entire nation, which was brutalized in the midst of the hostage crisis in the form of a massive US-backed invasion of Iran by Iraq's Saddam Hussain, who was America's surrogate to inflict pain on Iran that Washington for various reasons could not manage directly.
Indeed, the history of American hostage crisis and Iraq's invasion of Iran are highly intertwined, in light of the ample evidence that the CIA was instructed to provide Iraq's brutal dictator with vital information on Iran's military formations. One wonders how the audience would react if they would be exposed to another "true story" about Iran that would show the heroic CIA agents meeting Saddam Hussain and giving him the critical intel that he used to kill and displace millions of Iranians during the bloody 8 year war? Certainly that would not be in line with professor Nye's description of American "soft power," would it; the ever so "civilized" Americans do not wish to be projected on the screen as "uncivilized" and they are much obliged in this by the makers of Argo and other pathetically familiar Iranophobic movies.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and former adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiation team (2004-2006), and author of several books including Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.