Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Xenophobia of Argo

Josh Larsen


November 19, 2012

By Josh Larsen

It’s lonely not liking Argo.

A word-of-mouth success at the box office and approved by 95 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes, this dramatization of an actual C.I.A. mission to extricate six Americans trapped in Iran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis seems well on its way to Oscar glory. All of which makes the particularly American xenophobia that drives the picture even more alarming.

Director Ben Affleck also stars as C.I.A. agent Tony Mendez, an “exfiltration” expert who devises an unconventional plan for getting the six Americans who are hiding in the Canadian ambassador's home out of Iran: He sets up a legitimate Hollywood production company, flies into the country posing as the Canadian producer of a cheesy sci-fi flick that wants to film in Iran and then attempts to fly out with the six, claiming they're part of his crew. 

It’s a harrowing story, as it should be, yet what’s troublesome about Argo is how the story generates its suspense, and what the effects of that approach might be. In order to increase dramatic tension, the movie plays to our worst impulses as Western moviegoers. This is a film dominated by screaming men with dark beards; the constant waving of weapons; disorganized gatherings in unfamiliar streets. It's telling that more often than not, when the Iranian characters speak, their words aren't translated via subtitles. In short, they’re unfamiliar, unintelligible monsters.

Within such a narrow worldview, seeds of injustice can be planted. And the soil is fertile at this particular moment in history. It has been a year of escalating tension between the United States and Iran—evidenced, most recently, by a U.S. drone fired upon by Iran earlier this month. Fueled by rumblings in Washington that the United States should seriously consider war with Iran, with its increasing nuclear capabilities and stated desire for the destruction of Israel, American opinion is already open to the idea. Rarely, though, do these discussions consider what such a war would mean for the Iranian people.

The people of Iran are one of the lenses through which Chris Seiple has argued we should view any military action. Earlier on Capital Commentary, he wrote that Iranians “are generally cosmopolitan and tolerant, and … do not like the regime, as the June 2009 demonstrations most visibly reveal. Would an attack perversely lend legitimacy to a discredited regime, limiting any chance for internal political change?”

I’d also ask: How do these same people look through the lens of Argo? The picture’s definitive scene takes place in an outdoor market, where Mendez has taken his "crew" to convince Iranian officials that they’re scouting locations. Affleck’s camera emphasizes the chaotic nature of the market, the darkness of the various alleys, the unfamiliar, non-Western “otherness.” After one of the Americans has a misunderstanding with a shop owner, the market erupts into more (unintelligible) screaming, pushing and threats. Argo is overrun with ugly Iranians.

This stands in stark contrast to the biblical concept of the stranger, a figure we are encouraged to welcome—be it unknown visitors to the home of Abraham and Sarah or Jesus Himself. Usually discussed in the context of the recent immigration debate, I think this biblical reversal of our “stranger danger” mentality can also be applied to questions of art and foreign policy. If American moviegoers blindly accept a lauded movie like Argo, with its fearful depiction of Iranians as threatening strangers, it may become that much easier to shrug our shoulders when the powers that be decide to bomb them.

Clearly this wasn’t a repercussion envisioned by the movie’s makers. As its defenders have pointed out, the film pauses here and there to provide historical context for the anger being expressed by the Iranian revolutionaries. Yet these dry asides carry far less emotional power than the many other scenes founded on fear. What’s more, even the attempts at context carry a jingoistic flair. Argo opens with a brief political history of Iran that's told in the style of comic-book panels, a distinctly American art form. The stylistic choice makes the entire sequence a symbolic gesture of imperialism. It’s not just this particular story that belongs to us Westerners, the move implies, but all of Iran.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”