By Abdullah Antepli | February 26, 2013
Imam Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain at Duke University. He writes a regular column for the Duke Chronicle.
I wonder if I am the only one deeply disturbed and troubled by the recent Hollywood movie, “Argo.” My increasing sense of loneliness and alienation with “Argo” has been fed by the movie’s overrated fame, its undeserved success in the movie theaters and now more painfully by the multiple Oscars that it has won. To me, “Argo” and the response it has created shed light on larger problems that we face in our society, especially in our movie industry. “Argo” demonstrates how out of touch we are with crucial global realities and how disconnected we are from how we come across to the rest of the human family through these kinds of expressions.
I welcomed the news of “Argo” when I first heard of it, hoping that it would help us face one of the ugliest chapters of our recent U.S. history with Iran. I was misled by the initial publicity of the movie and excited to see how the movie would unveil our government’s miserably failed foreign policies prior to the Islamic revolution in 1979. I was eagerly waiting to see how the movie would enable an honest, self-critical assessment of Uncle Sam’s—especially the CIA’s—shameful involvement in the toppling of the democratically-elected government in Iran in the early 1950s and the empowering of a reprehensibly corrupt and oppressive regime in the country for over four decades. More importantly, I hoped the movie would show how, in part, these ethical and moral failures helped the conception and the birth of the so-called 1979 Islamic Revolution that ruined Iranian society.
After giving a puzzlingly brief lip service to my expectations at the beginning of the movie, “Argo” moved on to be another embarrassing “Rambo III” movie in many despicable ways: an innocent, white, Western David beating up ugly, exotic, monstrous oriental Goliaths and emerging as victor despite all odds. It caters to its home audience’s starvation for self-glory and self-serving, happy endings. More troublingly, the movie does all of that by distorting the obvious facts about one of the most important events in our recent history and dehumanizing a rich civilization irresponsibly. Film critic Kevin B. Lee expressed my heartache best when he recently reviewed “Argo” for Slate:
“Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: a cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans.”
“Argo” also disturbingly caters to the biased, post-9-11 image of Islam, Muslims and Middle Easterners and effectively serves to re-assert existing stereotypes. The movie skillfully markets once again the newly found international enemy of Western civilization. The movie describes and pictures the monolithic, black-and-white, pejorative, primitive, archaic, vengeful, unforgiving, irredeemably ignorant and forever dangerous nature of this new and scary enemy.
Since the release of the movie, many of my friends from all over the world, both Middle Eastern and otherwise, expressed their dismay and distaste about “Argo.” Much of what they said can be summarized in the following questions: “Who the heck do these people think they are?” “Who will buy this self-serving, biased and inaccurate propaganda in 2013?” “Do they (the filmmakers) not realize they make fools of themselves? For God’s sake give us a break!”
I also wonder how many Americans watched Argo and asked these kinds of questions. My friends’ rightful frustrations over “Argo” mirror certain realities of us as a society. It is no longer the 1980s, the Reagan days where movies like “Rambo” can fly. This kind of self-glorifying distortion of history can no longer go unnoticed or unpunished. What will it take to wake up from our self-delusions and express ourselves as we are, not what we wish to be? Again, Slate’s Kevin B. Lee puts it perfectly:
“We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.”
I can’t agree with him more and I fully share his disappointment and deep sense of embarrassment over “Argo.” U.S. society in general and our movie industry in particular have so much to catch up on with modern day realities and global responsibilities. Let’s stop making fools of ourselves.
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Abdullah on Twitter @aantepli.