The Shortsighted History of ‘Argo’

Exclusive: The Oscar for Best Picture went to Ben Affleck’s Argo, an escape-thriller set in post-revolutionary Iran. It hyped the drama and edged into propaganda. But Americans would have learned a lot more if Affleck had chosen the CIA coup in 1953 or the Republican chicanery in 1980, says Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In some ways it was encouraging that several Best Picture nominees had historical themes, whether they tried to stick fairly close to facts as in Lincoln on passage of the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery or they just used history as a vivid backdrop for an imaginative story about slavery as in Django Unchained.

It’s less encouraging that the Motion Picture Academy selected as Best Picture Argo, which while based on real events underscored Hollywood’s timidity about taking on more significant and more controversial events on either side of Ben Affleck’s film about the CIA-engineered escape of six staffers from the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979.

Actor/director Ben Affleck speaking at a rally for Feed America in 2009. (Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution)

On one end of that storyline was the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, a tale involving legendary and colorful American spies led by Kermit Roosevelt. On the other side of the Argo events was the mystery of Republican interference in President Jimmy Carter’s desperate efforts to free 52 embassy employees who were captured in 1979 and held for 444 days.

True, both bookend stories remain more shrouded in uncertainty than the much smaller Argo tale, but enough is known about them to justify a dramatic treatment. Participants in the 1953 coup and in the 1979-81 hostage crisis have described the events in sufficient detail to support a compelling movie script. Indeed, Miles Copeland, a CIA officer who worked on the 1953 coup even reemerged for a cameo appearance in Republican activities around Carter’s frustrated hostage negotiations in 1980. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

I realize that Hollywood is not primarily interested in increasing understanding among adversarial nations. But either a movie about the 1953 coup or one going behind-the-scenes of the 1979-81 hostage crisis could help inform the American people about the complex relationship that has existed between the United States and Iran. It’s not just good guy vs. bad guy.

Of course, that might be the key reason why Hollywood found the little-known Argo story compelling and the other bigger stories to be non-starters. Argo did largely draw its narrative in black and white, with strong propaganda overtones, feeding into the current hostility between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program.

Despite a brief documentary-style opening referencing the 1953 coup and the dictatorial rule of the Shah of Iran until 1979, Argo quickly descended into a formulaic tale of sympathetic CIA officers trying to outwit nasty Iranian revolutionaries, complete with a totally made-up thriller escape at the end.

Misreporting Afghanistan

In that sense, Argo recalls Charlie Wilson’s War, which presented a dangerously misleading account of the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan. Though “just a movie,” Charlie Wilson’s War’s storyline has become something of a baseline for America’s understanding of the historic challenges in Afghanistan.

Charlie Wilson’s War portrayed the CIA-backed Afghan jihadists (or mujahedeen) as noble freedom-fighters and the Soviet pilots and soldiers trying to protect a communist government in Kabul as unmitigated war criminals and monsters. The nuances were all lost.

For instance, the communist regime for all its faults brought some measure of modernity to Afghanistan. Women’s rights were respected. Girls were allowed to attend school, and strict rules demanding segregation by sex were relaxed. Indeed, in the real history, the CIA-backed jihadists were motivated in large part by their fury over these reforms in women’s rights.

In other words, the CIA-backed jihadists were not the noble “freedom-fighters” as they were portrayed in the movie. They were fighting for the cruel subjugation of Afghan women. And the jihadists were notoriously brutal, torturing and executing captured Soviet and Afghan government soldiers.

However, that cruelty was not depicted in Charlie Wilson’s War, nor was it presented as the chief policy failure of U.S. war effort. According to the movie, the big U.S. mistake was a supposed failure to see the Afghan project through to the end, the alleged abandonment of Afghanistan as soon as the Soviet troops left in early 1989.

In the movie, Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, who is credited with organizing U.S. support for the Afghan “freedom-fighters,” is shown begging unsuccessfully for more money after the Soviets depart.

The real history is dramatically different. In late 1988 and early 1989, deputy CIA director Robert Gates and other key officials for the incoming administration of President George H.W. Bush rebuffed peace initiatives from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who wanted a unity government that would bring the civil war to an end and prevent a wholesale return of Afghanistan to the Dark Ages.

Instead, the Bush-41 administration sought a triumphal victory for the jihadists and the CIA. So, contrary to the movie’s depiction of a cut-off of funds once the Soviets departed, the United States actually continued covert war funding for several more years in hopes of taking Kabul.

That rejection of Gorbachev’s initiative opened Afghanistan to the complete chaos that followed and finally the rise of the Pakistani-backed Taliban in the mid-1990s. The Taliban then hosted fellow Islamist extremist Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorists.

Though Charlie Wilson’s War starring Tom Hanks was “just a movie,” it cemented in the American mind a false narrative which has been repeatedly cited by policymakers, including Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, as justification for continuing a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Similarly, Argo confirms to many average Americans the unreasonableness of Iranians, who are portrayed as both evil and inept. If negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program collapse, this propaganda image of the Iranians could help tilt the balance of U.S. public opinion toward war.

By contrast, movies on the CIA’s 1953 coup or the Republican interference in Carter’s hostage negotiations in 1980 would demonstrate that there are two or more sides to every story. Granted, such movies would encounter powerful forces of resistance. The moviemakers might be accused of “blaming America first” and the Academy might shy away from handing out Oscars in the face of controversy.

But either of the bookend stories around Argo would get to more important truths than did this year’s Best Picture. The two stories would show how America has manipulated politics abroad and how that practice has come home to roost.

[For a limited time, you can purchase Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush family, which includes detailed accounts of these false narratives, for only $34. For details, click here.]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

16 comments for “The Shortsighted History of ‘Argo’

  1. Reza
    March 9, 2013 at 12:49

    Before I cast my opinion here I’d like to mention that I’m an Iranian, atheist who have not watched this movie yet because I value my time.
    I believe that 2 main events spread Islamic fundamentalist around the world which on both America is to blame.

    1. As it is mentioned in the article, after American cue of 1953 in Iran, Shah suppressed all the political parties in Iran (e.g. communist, Nationalist) but a small group of Islamists who were able to spread their fundamental ideas amongst younger generation. The result was a strong Islamic party which suppressed all other parties after 1978 revolution and has brought misery and terror not only to Iranians but also to all other corrupted, undemocratic states and groups in the Middle East.

    2. For a few years after soviets left Afghanistan, U.S. supported Taliban to help them take over Afghanistan. They fought all the smaller ethnic minorities in North Afghanistan (e.g. Hezareh &…) until took over the country. It was only after it that they started to export the chaos and misery that they were in to other parts of the world ( eg. Taliban threatened to attack Iran 1 year before 9/11 & of course 9/11.)

    Let alone the vague reasons for second war in Iraq.

    It is not for me but all you religious people around the world, pray for America, A Giant with no brain.

  2. Caspin Lange
    February 27, 2013 at 18:25

    Was I the only person who noticed that the First Lady of the United States of America was the one to open the envelope from the White House and announce live via satellite that the winner of the Best Picture for 2012 was Argo? Holy Toledo, man!

    Any ideas about that?

  3. Ray Cushing
    February 27, 2013 at 09:44

    After I heard that “Argo” had won Best Picture (I didn’t see it and probably won’t; I don’t like propaganda), I knew that Mr. Robert Parry, the dean of Iran hostage journalists, would have something of interest to say about the film. I Googled “Robert Parry Argo” and I wasn’t disappointed. Good job, Bob… thanks for another healthy dose of the historical perspective that sets your work apart from that of lesser scribes.

  4. Steven
    February 27, 2013 at 03:33

    maybe not everyone would get this from seeing argo but i thought the first few minutes put the blame for the crisis squarely on america.

  5. Ronald Thomas West
    February 26, 2013 at 04:22

    There’s always more to a story, it’s a pity there is no notable films debunking the Bernays inspired propaganda winning oscars.

    What jumps out should be the rogue elements violating American law, Iran-Contra could be developed and properly fleshed out, this might even open the door to balance the view of the evil on both sides honestly (e.g. stoning women to death for pursuing self-determination), however granted the evil in Iran had largely been spurred on by and has been reactionary to, American initiated acts. I have been acquainted with various persons the Iranian expat community in Europe, and had discussions on the history from 1953 to present. In one of these conversations (very recently) when I pointed out the ‘nuclear issue’ served to strengthen the Ayatollahs’ hand by uniting much of the domestic opinion behind leadership pointing a finger at the crass hostility/hypocrisy of the western powers, the woman I had been discussing with rebutted with however true that might be, it is even more true and dangerous Ahmadinejad is using the opportunity to increase hostility/anger levels throughout the region by harvesting resentment towards the USA/Israel in the Arab nations to strengthen his regime’s position and she may well be right. The man is not a good guy, but is defended like a persecuted saint in circles that opt for the lesser evil as opposed to any principled good.

    Truth is not easily a black and white thing ..

    • yo bro
      March 2, 2013 at 15:55

      2 things: One the first Ayatollah was actually adamantly opposed to nuclear weapons as he believed them to be fundamentally sinful according to Islam. Second, President Achmadinejad is only as powerful as the Ayatollah allows him to be and actually wont be President after 2014. He also has had a falling out with the Ayatollah and is really considered to be more of a moderate within Iranian politics.

  6. Angelo
    February 26, 2013 at 00:33

    Great article Robert.
    I did see the movie, but more should have been added to it. I was looking for an angle toward the secrecy that went on to keep the hostages in there longer. While it mainly focused on the 6 escaping and how they were led out of Iran there was more to the whole hostage situation that we know now happened. Maybe another movie in the future will address that issue.

  7. F. G. Sanford
    February 25, 2013 at 23:58

    It didn’t surprise me that Hollywood gave an “Oscar” to a film that was more about Hollywood than historical reality. But I thought the really weird thing was that animatronic ventriloquist dummy, “Ted” claiming to be Jewish. I wasn’t paying much attention, and wondered if I really heard it right. What, are they trying to do? Put a warm, fuzzy cuddly spin on a faction aligned with the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? I’m sure most Americans swallowed the propaganda hook, line and sinker. It’s kind of like those pictures of Hitler feeding a baby deer, or Eva Braun cuddling with a bunny rabbit. Weird. Just too weird.

  8. incontinent reader
    February 25, 2013 at 19:55

    Maybe, Bob, it is time for another film maker or film makers- perhaps in a joint US-Iranian project- to make a film or series of films spanning the period from the 1953 coup to the hostage crisis, and even to the present- and to get it right.

    Affleck has justified his version from his study of CIA documents and discussions with CIA agents, such as Tony Mendez, and with others who were on the ground and involved in the hostage crisis, though, I cannot imagine that Mendez would have minimized the role of the Canadian embassy officials. But beyond that, your point, Bob is right on, i.e., that without context the film conveys a false narrative of the Iranians, who they were, what their motivation was and why, as well as the historical issues that informed both the Iranians and the CIA. It would have been fruitful for Affleck to have further perspective from a person like former diplomat William R. Polk who could have provided a better overarching understanding of Iran, and Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett who have as good an understanding as any of present day Iran. And, certainly Affleck could have sat down with Hossein Mousavian, who was in his early twenties during the hostage crisis and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Tehran Times from 1980-1990, and later became a foreign policy advisor, including Head of the Foreign Policy COmmittee under Ayatollah Khatami, and diplomat, and negotiator for Iran in its dealings with the IAEA. since Mousavian has been a Fellow at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs since 2009. Without a doubt Mousavian is one of the most impressive, erudite and practical diplomats and negotiators one could hope for to help untangle the current set of political and technical problems related to Iran’s nuclear program.

    Furthermore, It would have been helpful, for example to have gained more background on the CIA’s involvement with SAVAK, and SAVAK’s assassination and torture of the Shah’s political opponents. (I recall, when in school in DC prior to the Revolution, of being told by some Iranian exchange students in unguarded moments of the unrest and dissatisfaction in Iran with the Shah, and their deep concern that the CIA was monitoring their activities in the US, and fear (later justified) that the university itself was collaborating with the Agency. So, there existed the contradiction that while the Iranian government was paying for their education in the U.S., the students were living in fear.

    Moreover, it would have been valuable to have gotten a better understanding in the film of the various political factions that were competing during the hostage crisis.

    So, maybe ‘Argo’ will become a catalyst for a real historical film, more on the order of “The Battle of Algiers” or “The Battle of Chile” with sequels.

    • Jada Thacker
      February 27, 2013 at 00:11

      Reality Check?

      A widely viewed American movie has explicitly stated in its opening scenes that the United States of America illegally and cynically overthrew a democratically elected foreign government in 1953. This statement unfortunately is a fact.

      And so this movie went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture — despite telling this truth to an American public generally oblivious to this fact — even as the drum beat for war with Iran currently continues on the nightly news?

      In my view, Argo’s Oscar calls more for celebration than nitpicking. Would it not be silly to allow some hypothetically imagined movie to become the nemesis of an actual movie that stated hard truth to the American public and then managed to receive the highest praise for doing so? I say don’t shoot the messenger for bringing one important truth rather than all the truths one could imagine.

      In any event, we Americans don’t need more factual and explicit historical movies about Iran so much as we need them about our own country.

    • Elie
      March 8, 2013 at 17:46


      I believe that this is a film to make you Americans ready for a new war. Sit and see…

  9. Igor Slamoff
    February 25, 2013 at 19:55

    I fully agree that by focusing on the 1979 events the film distracts the viewer’s attention from the CIA coup against the progressive nationalist Mossadeq in 1953, which created the setting in which a takeover by Moslem fundamentalists became possible.
    We must blame Eisenhower for Khomeini, Ahmedinajan & Co.

    • incontinent reader
      February 25, 2013 at 20:02

      Tim Weiner in “Legacy of Ashes” states that Khomeini was used by the CIA in support of the coup after it has spread false propaganda that Mossadeq was in alliance with the Tudeh Communist party, something that was anathema to the clerics.
      It is also realistic to believe that the clerics would not in the end support a non-sectarian democratic party, as they did not after the 1979 Revolution.

    February 25, 2013 at 19:01

    U.S. corporate media’s MAIN function is as propaganda for the Empire. U.S. films produced by major studios will NEVER show the truth of brutal, murderous U.S. imperialism since (at least) the Mexican War. USans “can’t handle the truth”, to borrow a phrase from yet another Hollywood military propaganda film, “A Few Good Men”, in which justice and truth eventually triumph, as opposed to the realities of Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou, and Julian Assange.

  11. rosemerry
    February 25, 2013 at 18:11

    What a sad choice. A tiny event, credited to the CIA and not Canada of course, making the Iranians look like stupid savages and fuelling the USA’s usual “we are exceptional” gloating. All the hostage hype, the nasty underhand doings Robert Parry has written about, and of course the meticulousy repaired pages of the documents the US spies had shredded, showing the illegal activity embassy staff were involved in, would not have made a feel-good film.

  12. Frances in California
    February 25, 2013 at 17:31

    Think about it, Rehmat: Many who are not celebrities like Afleck have longer, deeper memories. Someday – as we now shun McCarthy who did his evil in the ’50s – all will cringe at the memory of “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. The Criminal Oligarchy will still be paying crazy or desperate people who have talent to make crap like this, but it will start to be held in derision, much as Rev. Fred Phelps and his damaged children’s harassment of service-members’ funerals is now.

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