Warning: This post contains spoilers about the ending of Argo.
As George Carlin once said, America’s greatest export is the “manufacture, packaging, distribution, and marketing of bullshit.” Whether it be campaign promises, the work of advertising firms, or Hollywood movies, America is deeply invested – economically, culturally, and emotionally – in the bullshit industry. Ben Affleck’s Argo is, in various ways, a demonstration of the prominence and even vital importance of bullshit throughout several facets of transnational experience. Argo evidences the incredible extent to which the fantasies that accompany bullshit create meaning within our daily lives.
Argo is, as you no doubt already know, a staging of the extraordinary true story about a carefully orchestrated rouse executed by the CIA in tandem with the Canadian government in order to rescue six refugees from the Iranian takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. And what more effective way to execute such a complex rouse than to use as its cover an industry fluent in the perpetuation of lies: the Hollywood studio system. Affleck’s Tony Mendez utilizes an industry known for creating and promoting suspense of disbelief in order to navigate a life-or-death scenario that requires outside individuals to believe the façade that covers what they are actually witnessing.
The all-American fantasy machine that is Hollywood expands far beyond the borders on the east and west coasts, as the industry’s commanding international ubiquity and influence even temporarily convinces Argo‘s strict rebel guards at the Tehran airport to believe in the illusion. In this respect, it’s both interesting and important that the events depicted in Argo occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Hollywood made its final transition away from the gritty New Hollywood realism that characterized much of the previous decade, an era that produced films which spoke more locally and nationally than the multi-part international franchise hits of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Had Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet showed up in Tehran to film Serpico 2: The Persian Case, Mendez’s rouse may not have been executed so successfully. Sure, the fictionalized “inspiration” for Mendez’s plan comes from one of Planet of the Apes’ socially-conscious 1970s sequels. However, by 1980, a globalized Hollywood and a captive audience were fully invested in fantasies that knew no grounding in the pretensions of gritty realism or social relevance.
As Anthony Lane of The New Yorker points out, Argo’s preoccupation with Hollywood bullshit goes one decisive, and complicating, step further. For a film that has a rather cynical but comic critique of the largely meaningless games of one-upsmanship amongst the Los Angeles entertainment establishment, Argo as a product of that same industry is fully invested in the comforting lies that Hollywood churns out on its assembly line. As with many true stories, several important details of Argo are condensations or exaggerations of the real-life scenarios depicted (chief among these creative liberties is the unfortunate fib that Mendez was as functionally generic a cipher as the on-screen Affleck is).
Some license is routine, even the fictionalized family troubles given to Mendez in order to create a narrative of pathos and redemption. But the place that Argo exaggerates most explicitly is the moment the entire narrative intended to build up to: the six refugees’ airport escape, which in reality went relatively smoothly and without interruption compared to the nail-biting excitement of Argo’s last-minute ticket orders, encounters with stereotypically angry Middle Eastern men of authority, and last-millisecond phone calls, complete with a spectacular car/plane chase.
Don’t get me wrong; the sequence is exciting. And amongst the lies perpetuated through Hollywood’s numerous “true stories,” Argo’s is relatively inconsequential. But what’s interesting about Argo’s relationship to cinematic bullshit is its ambivalence. On the one hand, the film calls out the Hollywood industry for being a vacuous distraction machine. On the other, the film fully embraces the utility of Hollywood’s appeal to bullshit, and to great effect. For a film so critical of Hollywood in its first act, Argo is deeply invested in the cathartic release of the Hollywood ending – closure, hugs, jingoism and all. And in order for that ending to deserve its catharsis, every potential obstacle must be placed in its way. Argo is one of the more satisfying and serious works of bullshit Hollywood has released in some time.
One final point. Amongst the eternal American bullshit genre of campaign rhetoric that will be spewed tonight on national television, you’ll no doubt see posturing around the incident that killed Chris Stevens, the American Ambassador to Libya, last month. Initial narratives during and after the attack posited that the riots surrounding the American embassies in both Libya and Egypt emerged as a result of news about the Islamophobic American-produced film Muslim Innocence that a particular (but minority) segment of Egypt’s and Libya’s populations reacted against.
Now, while I admit to not knowing all the details that have emerged since September 11th of this year, there seems to have arisen a consensus that the film in fact played a much smaller part in the attack in Libya, at least in the assassination (which has since been described as deliberately orchestrated), if not in relation to certain components of the larger riots themselves.
Seriously speaking, it’s revealing that, in two historically separate real-life incidents involving Islamic-majority nations attempting to find its democratic and possibly theocratic identity, the crises encountered in the occupation of an embassy was either argued to have started with, or potentially solved through, the impressions of an unseen film. I’m not asserting a deliberate political intent on behalf of Argo (considering the impossible timing), nor am I stating that the particular nations of Libya and Iran are somehow reductively rendered synonymous through these incidental and historically contingent similarities.
Moreover, unlike Argo (the produced and unproduced film), Muslim Innocence is not a work of Hollywood. But Hollywood hardly has a monopoly on cinematic bullshit. Muslim Innocence is part of a greater history of more overt bullshit: ideological propagation.
If history repeats itself, it does so with considerable variation, and the presence of cinematic bullshit during the history depicted in Argo and in the recent violence surrounding the American embassy in Libya speaks to the considerable power associated with cinematic bullshit’s wide spread of communication and influence, so powerful in fact that it can prove consequential to history and international relations even when the film in question is hardly visible or doesn’t actually exist.
Cinematic bullshit is important, so much so that it can change the course of history, then later alter how that history is understood through a Hollywood movie about it.