I wonder if it ever dawned on the producers of Argo– as they watched their film unfold– that it contained virtually no characters from the country the movie aims to portray.
In fact, despite 120 minutes of screen time, not one of the dozens of Iranian actors employed in the production has been given any significant role to play, beyond a grimacing one-liner, usually in the form of a threat.
Instead, the Iranians hired for this movie played the role of extras–a kind of Orientalist wallpaper to make the location feel “realistic.”
And what could be more realistic for the producers than to cast their Iranian extras in one of two categories: either as members of angry mobs, fists waiving in the air chanting “death to America” or as maniacal bearded men with piercing eyes, often equipped with assault rifles.
The role of “The Iranian” as defined by Argo resembled that of the ruthless “Smith” in The Matrix trilogy. Like the dozens of Iranians cast in Argo, the hundreds of Smiths in The Matrix have no depth, no emotional qualities and indeed no human qualities. Like the Smith, the Iranian never smiles.
So fearsome are these Argo Iranians, that the audience (myself included) is driven by the suspense to collectively breathe a sigh of relief once the Americans are finally safe in an airplane, leaving the dark, repressive and angry Islamic world in the rear view mirror. This final scene reminded of the closing scene in the 1986 film Delta Force, where Chuck Norris and his commandos cheer as they are finally safely aboard a plane out of Beirut.
And what has changed in the 26 years since Delta Force hit screens? Hollywood is still scripting Middle Easterners as the dimensionless, screaming bad guys, attacking brave innocent American heroes for no reason better than their own backwardness. Perhaps out of post-Orientalism guilt, the makers of Argo added a one minute history lesson at the beginning of their film which blames America for having a role in removing Iran’s past prime minister in a CIA coup (I’d love to see a film about that).
But these ideas are not developed beyond a fleeting slide show and I doubt few if any audience members will have remembered this brief ‘blame America’ moment once 119 minutes of seat gripping tension (and menacing Iran/Islam stereotypes) have followed it. More importantly, viewers are left with a lasting empathy or lack thereof for the respective American and Iranian faces on screen.
Will Hollywood ever make a film where audiences rally not with American operatives completing their mission, but with those who have suffered directly as a result of that mission, relieved to kick them out for it?
Post Script: Turns out that Argo’s climax– and perhaps most Orientalist moment– where Iranians chase a plane down the runway in buffoon-like, Delta-Force-like fashion was completely fabricated, according to this panel Q&A with Affleck, who somehow maintains the film was “extremely accurate.”
“One audience member asked about the film’s dramatic climax, in which — spoiler alert — a fleet of cars driven by members of the Revolutionary Guard chase the houseguests’ plane as it lifts off. “There were no cars chasing them down the runway,” admitted Affleck, who got a big laugh when he added, “Those were my cars, and I wanted to get the rental [fees]. I was like, ‘Maybe we use it, maybe we don’t,’ you know what I mean? Turned out to be good.”