“If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.” So goes a line by Jack O’Donnell, a character in the movie Argo based loosely on the true story of a CIA operative helping six U.S. diplomats flee the Iranian capital during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
At the Oscars last Sunday, there was plenty of applause for Argo, including from U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama no less, who announced the Best Picture Award for the movie through a special video-link broadcast from the White House. For Iran, however, which did not take its portrayal in the movie too kindly, the ceremony may just as well have been a circus.
Iran’s Fars News Agency slammed the awards saying, “In a rare occasion in Oscar history, the First Lady announced the winner for Best Picture for the anti-Iran Film Argo, which is produced by the Zionist company Warner Bros.”
In addition to that loaded comment, Fars found the First Lady’s sleeveless gown too revealing. So it used Photoshop to redesign the dress to look like it covered her chest and shoulders. After that bit of digital magic, the news agency felt it safe to broadcast Michelle’s image on Iranian television where women must have their hair, arms and legs covered at all times.
Michelle Obama is not the first prominent figure to be at the receiving end of Iran’s notorious censors. In 2011, an image of Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, was Photoshopped to rectify her “plunging neckline.”
For the uninitiated and for those wondering what the fuss is all about, Argo tells the story of CIA agent Tony Mendez, who helps a group of six American diplomats impersonate a Canadian film crew, so as to escape revolutionary Iran. The joint U.S.-Canadian covert operation popularly known as the “Canadian Caper” involved Mendez joining the six diplomats to form a fake film crew to shoot a scene for a science-fiction film called Argo.
The plot was successful and the diplomats boarded a flight to Zurich in January 1980. While six escaped, 52 American diplomatic staff were held hostage by militants in the now defunct U.S. embassy in Tehran for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981.
Over-dramatized, sensationalized and loaded with nationalism, the movie was directed by actor Ben Affleck, who plays Mendez. The film may have gained the approval of the Academy, but it has also came in for strong criticism for its historical inaccuracies and portrayal of Iranians as dark forces baying for American blood.
Significantly, in its laudatory depiction of the CIA’s hoodwinking of Iranian authorities in those heady years, the film glosses over the CIA’s very role in precipitating the crisis. In particular, the CIA’s role in the coup that led to the ouster of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.
Indeed, Iran's state-run broadcaster Press TV detailed its objections to the film in an online article on published February 24: “The Iranophobic American movie attempts to describe Iranians as overemotional, irrational, insane, and diabolical while at the same, the CIA agents are represented as heroically patriotic."
The issues raised in this article may explain the anger shared by many Iranians, even those opposed to the regime, who see the stereotyping of their country in poor taste. The politicization of this year’s Oscars ceremony with the U.S. First Lady’s video appearance added insult to injury.
According to CNN, Iran’s Art Bureau, which is affiliated with the Islamic Ideology Dissemination Organization, plans to shoot a film titled "The General Staff" to “correct” Argo’s version of the story.
Tehran’s reaction to the Oscars this year was a far cry from its response to the awards show last year. When an Iranian movie titled A Separation bagged the award for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 2012, celebrations broke out across the country.
This bizarre exchange illustrates the widening gulf between Iran and the United States as they continually fail to confront their turbulent shared past. Washington, more so than Tehran, has failed to tap its soft power to bring the peoples of the two countries closer, even as two governments continue their face-off.
“Argo, f**k yourself,” a light-hearted and oft-repeated line from the movie, is less an ongoing joke shared by its characters in their quest to free trapped Americans than it is a reflection of what many Iranians think about the movie. And that is no laughing matter.