Foreign Policy Blogs

Argo Controversy



“The Movie Was Fake. The Mission Was Real.”

From heading to the theater to see the newest release to watching Academy Awards that honor the year’s best pictures, many Americans enjoy the multifaceted components of the movie industry. For approximately two hours, people have the opportunity to experience fantasy worlds, the lives of fictitious characters overcoming obstacles, and occasionally learn something about history and the human condition. However, when the end credits roll, and the lights illuminate once dark theaters, people exit the room with an understanding that the film they watched was a Hollywood creation, fictional pieces put together to entertain. Unlike audiences worldwide, the Iranian government was not thrilled with “Argo,” the year’s most acclaimed film. 

After the 1979 overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in February 1979, an Islamic government, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, came to power in Iran. Despite the ousting of a key American ally and installation of an anti-western regime, the United States maintained diplomatic relations with Iran until November of that year. On November 4, 1979 a group of radicals, including Islamist students and militants, seized the American Embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two Americans hostages were held captive for 444 days (until January 20, 1981). Among the event’s international ramifications was the U.S. decision to sever diplomatic ties with the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran.

When radicals stormed the American Embassy and took diplomats captive, six Americans, with help from Canadian diplomats, escaped the U.S. embassy and fled Iran. “Argo” (2012) is a loose account of the CIA and Canadian rescue mission of the six Americans. The historical dramatization, adapted from written accounts of the events, follows the operation led by CIA officer Tony Mendez. Although based on the account of real events, the movie’s creators undoubtedly took creative liberties. Like most “based on a true story” Hollywood creations, “Argo” was made to be a box-office sensation, not prepare viewers to be scholars on the subject matter. Grossing more than $229 million in worldwide ticket sales, “Argo” was well received by audiences. However, the Iranian government was outraged by the film’s portrayal of the events, claiming the film to be anti-Iranian propaganda. Iran’s state-run television station identified issues with the film, stating, “The Iranophobic American movie attempts to describe Iranians as overemotional, irrational, insane, and diabolical while at the same time the CIA agents are represented as heroically patriotic.”

To counter what Iranian officials viewed a negative and incomplete portrayal of the 1979-1980 events, Tehran’s Art Bureau plans to fund a movie, “The General Staff,” about Iranians relinquishing 20 American hostages to the United States. According to the film’s director, Ataollah Salmanian “this film, which will be a big production, should be an appropriate response to the a-historic film Argo.”

Controversy mounted with the 2013 Academy Awards crowning “Argo” Best Picture. A live feed from the White House enabled First Lady Michelle Obama to announce the winner of the category, and although the Academy Awards is not a political event, her presence may have had a psychological effect on viewers. Acting as a celebrity announcer and not in a political role, Mrs. Obama’s presence was potentially received by some as the Obama administration’s support for the motion picture. Responding to the First Lady’s role in the award ceremony, Iran’s Mehr News Agency identified official Iranian perceptions of a Hollywood and Washington marriage, “Hollywood has been an instrument to the U.S. politicians to use it for their political purposes, not based on reality, but one-sided and distorted, to present to the world.”

Shortly after the Academy Awards, Iranian officials added to their cinematic response to “Argo” by announcing Iran’s intention to sue Hollywood filmmakers who produce anti-Iran propaganda. Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, a French lawyer, will file the suit.  Coutant-Peyre stated, “I will defend Iran against the films like Argo, which are produced in Hollywood to distort the country’s image.”

While one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, it is important for audiences worldwide to understand the difference among cinematic genres. “Argo” is not a documentary or educational program, nor does it claim to be. Whether loved or hated, when the credits role and the lights go on, “Argo” is simply a movie intended to entertain.



Allison Kushner

Allison Kushner received three undergraduate degrees from Boston University and a Master's degree in Middle Eastern Security and Diplomacy Studies from Tel Aviv University. She has spent time living and traveling throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China. A former political speechwriter, Allison has taught college level Political Science and International Relations in the U.S. and China. She continues to be engaged in public speaking activities at home and abroad.

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