The Propagandization of American Centralism and Middle-Eastern Hostility: A Film Analysis

Paper by Ivy Bi.

On November 4, 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran was invaded and fifty-two American citizens were held hostage. Six managed to escape in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Iran was no longer a monarchy and the last Shah was overthrown earlier that year. This became known as the Iranian Hostage Crisis and would send the United States and the CIA into turmoil. In Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012), the movie focuses on the rescue of the six escaped and their coordinator, Tony Mendez. In a particular scene depicting the events leading up to Mendez and the six successfully boarding the plane home, the cinematic elements of style, build-up, and mood all compound upon the overall idea of American heroism and furthering the image of middle-eastern hostility and chaos. Through research and analysis, I will dissect this particular scene and the overall implications of the film. This pro-American rhetoric and unpopular depiction of Iran and the Middle East are what continues to fuel the conflicts we know today.

To begin, Argo is a film directed and starred by Ben Affleck. Affleck is known for his roles in Armageddon, Good Will Hunting, and his portrayal of Batman in the Justice League series. Affleck, along with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, produced the film and Tony Mendez and Joshua Bearman co-wrote it. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Initial Entertainment Group, and Smoke House Pictures were the companies involved in the production of this film. Argo is based on the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis where fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage by the Iranian people from the American Embassy in Tehran. Iran had recently withgone a revolution involving the overthrow of their monarchy and their last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was originally put into place with the help of the United States. This coup was brought about due to the Shah’s corruption and incompetence that led to starvation and economic disparity for its people. Since the Shah’s overthrow, discontentment against the United States continued to rise, leading to the overtake of the American Embassy. During this time, the CIA would call upon Mendez, an extractor, to resolve the problem. Mendez would come up with an elaborate plan to act as a Canadian film crew, going on location, in order to film a new Hollywood alien-space film called “Argo”.

The scene that I have chosen from Argo is the climax nearing the end of the film. This scene is where the audience waits to see if Mendez and the six embassy workers are allowed passage or will be taken back and executed. The scene begins with the group hastily coming out of the Canadian ambassador’s residence, where they were hiding out, and going to the airport. The scene then cuts to the CIA’s Jack O’Donnell who is desperately trying to get the President’s approval for giving them the plane tickets. Mendez’s Hollywood film crew plan was originally called off, but he decided to go through with it anyways, much to O’Donnell’s surprise. As O’Donnell is seen trying to reach the President’s office, the seven are seen walking into the airport and a flashback of Mendez giving a rundown of the airport procedure is played. The scene continues to cut back from the CIA to the Tehran Airport as they are at the first of three checkpoints. Unexpectedly, they are stopped as no tickets are registered. Mendez and the six are seen nervously waiting as the receptionist checks again and the tickets go through (due to O’Donnell’s help). Then, they enter the second checkpoint at immigration where their forged entry slips (white slips) are checked. The receptionist there sees that the original slips are not found and goes to the backroom to verify. He comes back and Bob Anders, who poses as the director, presents him with acknowledgment from the cultural center, representing their respect for Allah. This grants them entry into their last stage- facing the European and American-educated Revolutionary Guard. The seven are seen lining up to board the plane and the Revolutionary Guards are seen as roughly checking the passengers in line. When one of the seven reaches the guard, the guard bombards him in Farsi. This eventually leads to all seven of them being taken to the spare room and interrogated. The main guard in charge continues to yell at them in Farsi as they struggle to explain their situation. Joe Stafford, the only one who knows Farsi, attempts to explain to them why they are here and presents them with the script and scene animations from the movie. Meanwhile, the scene cuts to children taping together strips of paper, identifying the faces of the six escaped hostages (the people currently at the airport). They are slowly running out of time and the main guard finally tells them in English that he will need to verify with their film studio back in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, O’Donnell is struggling to contact the film studio as the plan was called off, and they get no reply. The scene cuts back and forth from the guard calling the studio and the directors getting to their desk in the studio. The guard is able to get confirmation and the seven are able to board the plane. Once the Revolutionary Guards realize what they have done, it is too late to stop the plane.

In this scene, the audience can see through the mise-en-scene, camera movements, music, and stylistic choices that contribute to setting the mood for this buildup. Firstly, the mise-en-scene is composed of a mainly blue palette. As explained by Gerry Coulter, “by contrast, warm hues and soft tonal complementaries are often used in films to make us feel good and to invite us into the warmth of the story being told by the script” (3). In contrast, this scene and the overall film presents a largely cold and bold contrast. This provides an emotional response from the audience of added suspense, fitting in with the theme of the film being psychologically thrilling. The color palette is further enforced by the clothing of the people. The guards are seen wearing a sickly green uniform and the seven interrogated are in mostly darks and beige colors. Additionally, the lighting generally comes from one source, casting a large and concentrated shadow unto the rest of the scene. This further enriches the notion of suspense and anticipation throughout the film. Another element of mise-en-scene is the general setting of the airport. The scenes of the airport, throughout the three checkpoints are very rigid and stiff, very much like the situation. The large stone pillars and long light beams highlight the structure imposed on the seven. This is also enhanced by the movement of the camera. The movement is very orderly, and resulting in still scenes that reflect each other. Whereas, in the car ride to the airport, the camera moves quickly up and down to insinuate the bumpy roads and the speed of the moving vehicle. The movement of the camera directly affects the situation and helps to visualize the buildup of tension and the situation from scene to scene. Conversely, the background music increases the anxiety as the climax is reached. From each checkpoint, the music induces a feeling of doubt and uneasiness followed by relief as Mendez and the other six face challenges. The music is choppy and haste- just like the situation. As the passengers are safe and in the air, a triumphant and emotional music is played. Lastly, another aspect used to set up the tone of the film is stylistic editing. The editing style uses a series of repetitions. This happens throughout the film but most prominently in the climax scene. The scene cuts back and forth from the Tehran airport and to the CIA. As Mendez and the six struggle through security checkpoints, O’Donnell and his team work fervently in order to make their process a success. This also indicates to the audience the lack of time, how quickly both sides are moving, and insinuates the buildup of tension.

After dissecting the visual and directorial aspects of this scene, the audience is able to contemplate the overall political message that this film entails. The idea of American heroism contrasts greatly with the chaos and dangers of Iran. Through the central character of Tony Mendez, the film’s protagonist, the audience is led to believe that Mendez is the central force in carrying out this elaborate plan to rescue the hostages. This discredits the Canadian aid that was crucial in housing the six. Furthermore, as the film reaches its conclusion, the CIA is revealed to publicly announce the support of the Canadian government, as seen through news footage, but O’Donnell is seen telling Mendez to keep what he has done classified. This insinuates that the U.S. has merely given Canada the credit. In addition, the unpopular and violent perception of Iran and the Middle East can also be derived from this central scene. The Revolutionary Guards are seen as unyielding and aggressive towards the seven people. The whole process from the airport checkpoint faces factual errors. As stated by Josh Barthel, Eric Guajardo, and Ben Kassahun, “while in the film the team is harassed, interrogated, and chased by the police, in reality, the U.S. saviors made it onto the plane without a hassle” (1). This insinuates the idea of dramatization of plot whilst sacrificing historical accuracy. As argued by Marita Sturken, “memory and history are entangled, each pulling forms from the other. The boundaries between memory and history are often easily traversed… and the images of popular culture have the capacity to affect personal memories” (65-66). The use of film can be a crucial toy to manipulate the perception of its audience towards a particular mindset. In this case, it is exemplified through falsifying the narrative of Iranian military aggression on the seven people. Furthermore, throughout the film, there are portrayals of violence starting with the invasion of the embassy, a man hanging from a construction crane, and the military guards killing an innocent man in their way. These images all compound the rhetoric of American heroism and the violent nature of Middle Eastern politics. To add on, there is a lesser theme of anti-war and of struggle of classes. This notion is expanded upon through Mendez where he states that until he came to Iran, the U.S.
government reassured its people that the crisis in Iran was not a civil war and of minor concern. This can be seen through the scenes of Iranian citizens arrested at the airport and talks of the hostages stating that the new regime would arrest anyone with a foreign number in their contacts. Consequently, this relates to Andrew Kelly’s analysis on the Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957). Kelly states, “it is more pertinently an illustration of war as the continuation of class struggle” (225). Therefore, this is more loosely mirrored in the classified operation that Mendez headed. Lastly, there is a prescribed notion of irony among the Revolutionary Guards. This irony is present in other political films, pertaining to the notion of those carrying weaponry (Sissako 272). After the seven people are allowed to go on the plane, Mendez tells the other guards they can keep the scene action cards (Stafford used these earlier to describe the film). The guards are excited and seen emanating sounds of lasers and flying saucers. This contrasts greatly with the initial purpose of the interrogation and the main guard’s hostile actions, portraying an image of the influence of Hollywood.

In summary, through the use of cinematic elements such as mise-en-scene, music, and lighting, one is able to dissect the themes portrayed in a particular scene of Argo and the film as a whole. The strong notions of American-centrivity and the popularization of Iranian and Middle Eastern hostility and violence are prominent in that specific scene and the entirety of the film. Argo would go on to win three Oscars, two BAFTA Awards, three Academy Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards. This film was critically acclaimed and influential. With its historical reenactment of the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, Argo sought to depict a pro-American movie that dramatized many elements. Acknowledging certain actions for dramatic flare is reasonable, but not when it dismisses historical accuracy and promotion of the Middle Eastern struggle. The importance of analyzing Argo and other political films is due to the influence it has on future generations and their perception of history. Therefore, filmmakers and studios need to understand the long-term effects of their art as propaganda and possibly fueling further conflict between the United States and Middle Eastern countries.

Works Cited

Barthel, Josh, et al. “Commercializing Crisis: Argo Employs Familiar Hollywood Tropes.” ProQuest, Harvard International Review, 2013,
Coulter, Gerry. “Visual Story Telling and History as a Great Toy- The Lives of Others.” Wide Screen, vol. 1, no. 2, June 2010, pp. 1–11.,
Kelly, Andrew. “The Brutality of Military Incompetence: ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957).” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 13, no. 2, 15 Sept. 2006, pp. 215–227., doi:10.1080/01439689300260221.
Sturken, Marita. “Reenactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stones Docudramas.” History and Theory, vol. 36, no. 4, Dec. 1997, pp. 64–79., doi:10.1111/0018-2656.00031.
Taoua, Phyllis. “ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO’S TIMBUKTU AND ITS CONTROVERSIAL RECEPTION – Abderrahmane Sissako, Director. Timbuktu. Original Title: Timbuktu, Le Chagrin Des Oiseaux.2014. 97 Minutes. In French, Tamashek, Bambara, Songhay, and Arabic (with Subtitles in English and French). France/Mauritania. Worso Films.” African Studies Review, vol. 58, no. 2, Sept. 2015, pp. 270–278., doi:10.1017/asr.2015.61.

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