Does American Film’s Portrayal of Iran Shape Public Perception?

I recently saw the trailer for Ben Affleck’s upcoming film Argo, set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81. It follows an unorthodox exfiltration attempt by the CIA of six American hostages who managed to hide from Iranian authorities and take shelter with the Canadian ambassador to Iran.

As I watched strategically integrated clips of angry Iranian mobs harassing a bus carrying Americans and the Revolutionary Guard marching in the streets with guns, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the public perception of Iran played into the timing of the film’s release. That is to say—does the fact that many politicians and media outlets have recently been vilifying Iran guarantee higher public interest and, in turn, profit for the movie-makers?

Now for all I know the film may have a message that somehow paints the Iranian people in a pacifistic light, emphasizing the distinction between the people and the government. But regardless, it appears that advertent or not, these filmmakers are fueling the vilification of a country by means of trailers that look like news clips.

That is to say, vilifying the Iranian people through reminding the public of a crisis that took place thirty years ago seems like a morally questionable act at a time when relations between Iranians and Americans are at an extremely dangerous place.

The proposal of denying or altering historical reality to protect people from skewed opinions or perceptions is a way this article might be misinterpreted, but I assure you this is not my intention—I’m merely attempting to weigh the moral obligation of filmmakers (or any artist for that matter) in playing off of the popular perception of “other” people. It seems filmmakers sometimes forget that though these perceptions may help their work be successful, it also has the cyclical effect of feeding into that perception and, in a sense, confirming it.

So while I do not have a prescription for how long someone should wait to remind people of atrocities that question the character of a group or country, I think it’s important to keep in mind that filmmakers are not necessarily more educated on current events than the average American, and that their work being played very loudly on a large screen in front of a lot of people gives them artificial authority in terms of broader things like politics and current events.

While it may be argued that the movie’s timing is appropriate since it is, in theory, only vilifying the Iranian government which, now more than ever is disconnected from its own people, this argument assumes prior knowledge of this disconnect. The reality of the American public’s knowledge on Iran, let alone the silenced tensions between the government and the people, is that it is simply lacking.

A CNN Gallup poll from February of this year showed 71 percent of Americans think that Iran currently possess a nuclear bomb, and another poll shows roughly 25 percent want to take action to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The sentiment reflected by these numbers is one that does not mesh with an understanding of the complex state of Iranian politics, nor the history surrounding Iranian resources.

For most of Iran’s recent history, great powers have forced themselves into the country, calling themselves “business partners,” but functionally acting as bullies. Specifically, beginning in the early nineteenth century the Great Game took place, during which Great Britain and Russia were in competition with one another for control over Central Asia.  During this period the two countries fought over the resources of the Iranian Plateau and took over the Persian Empire’s most lucrative industries, including that of oil. This continued into the twentieth century and the Iranian people suffered mass inflation and starvation.

For Iran, nuclear energy means independence at last, looking toward France as a model, a country that gets over 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Petroleum exports are the main source of economic surplus for the Iranian government, and abandoning the development of its nuclear power projects means risking using up all oil for potential exports domestically. No oil exports means no economic surplus for the government, a huge incentive to maintain nuclear development.

Furthermore, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khameini reiterated afatwah (a religious ruling by an authority on Islam) in April of this year that deemed nuclear weapons haram (forbidden in Islam) on the basis that they necessarily kill innocent civilians. He explicitly forbade the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons, meaning his pursuing nuclear weapons would entirely undermine his own religious authority—which is, of course, the basis for his claim to political authority.

Logically, signs thus do not necessarily point to Iranian desire to create a nuclear weapon to strike the United States. Actually, it seems almost vain to assume such motive. Iran is acting rationally in its own best interest on the nuclear question, and until the International Atomic Energy Agency reports say something more than the informal equivalent of “hey, it could happen!” the risks involved in a strike on Iran cannot conceivably be outweighed by much of anything.

Though Argo features the rise of what is technically the same government that maintains power in Iran today, it also perpetuates the idea of this government as a resolute one, which emboldens it in the minds of watchers and makes it seem much more threatening.

But the reality of the current dynamics at play in Iran is one of great complexity that involves cleavages within the government itself. And if people continue to assume the Iranian government exists as one cohesive, strong entity, they are missing an extremely important element of Iranian state of affairs that could, almost ironically, be the key to taking down the unpopular, abusive regime.

At a time when waging war on this country is currently being seriously discussed by many unenlightened politicians, it is unquestionably risky to increase vilification of Iran in the minds of American moviegoers. They are, after all, citizens with voting power.

Cheney’s one percent doctrine, the idea that war against Iraq was justified by even a “one percent risk” of their possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction, played off of the fears of a public that did not know anything about their new so-called enemy, which is a testament to the fact that bad things happen when the public doesn’t know any better and looks to assumed authorities for wisdom. Thousands have been killed in a war that should never have taken place, as it was justified by fabricated facts and flawed logic.

If nothing else, this piece is intended to remind people that every country has a dark past and, often, even a dark present, but that there are also competing perspectives and complicating factors at play that are often neglected out of ignorance or convenience. Though there is surely not malicious intent on the part of the Argo creators, they may be inadvertently helping to shift public opinion in such a way that creates undesirable outcomes.

After all, the fact is that the goal of movie makers is to make money, and sometimes reality doesn’t sell.

Gabrielle Cherney is a senior at Indiana University Bloomington studying Near Eastern Language & Culture and Political Science. She is a founding member of the IU Debate Team and pursuing Language and Area Certification in Iranian Studies.


  • Nice article

  • Very interesting. Wondering if there are any other US films which portray Iranians and how? And what about Iran’s portrayal of Americans in film, literature etc.

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  • I definitely agree with the main argument of this article. Although Argo may be accurate in it’s depiction of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the mere fact that Hollywood directors and producers weigh their box office sales over balanced coverage of polarized political perspective (Iranian vs American) is a key issue that I have yet to see addressed on a sufficient scale. Thanks for this 🙂

  • There’s certainly a lot to learn about this subject. I like all of the points you made.

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