Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Argo: a cinematic theology of peacemaking

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for November.

A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“We did it peacefully.”

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. In 1979, the US Embassy in Iran was stormed by an angry mob.  While fifty two Americans were taken hostage, six staff escape, hiding in the Canadian ambassadors’ residence.

Enter CIA agent, John Mendez (Ben Affleck). While watching TV with his son (where would popular culture be without “Planet of the Apes”?) he hits upon the idea of smuggling the six out of Iran disguised as a film crew.

Enter Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fading director, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Together they peddle a faux movie, complete with poster, press and launch party.

Enter “Argo,” a science fiction script in which aliens attack Middle Eastern farmers. Mendez enters Iran as a location scout, prepared to navigate the missing diplomats as a Canadian camera and production crew, past Iranian security and into international airspace.

It makes for crackling tension. Real life TV footage of Iranian protests is spliced with the Iranian secret service steadily recreating, out of embassy shredded documents, photos of the missing embassy staff. Meanwhile the Iranian housekeeper, aware of the truth, must face divided loyalties as she encounters a questioning Iranian intelligence officer.

Truth really is stranger than fiction.

Those who appreciate creativity will note the clever use of cartooning, both to introduce a potted history of Western interference in Iranian history and latter to storyboard the “Argo” plot.

No less clever is the use of sound. Angry voices in the bazaar are mixed with the quiet interrogation of housekeeper by Iranian secret service agent, the shouted accusations as sinister as the quiet questions.

Amid this international tension, New Zealand gets a mention. We as a nation are alleged, along with Britain, to have failed to hide the six embassy staff.

The truth really is different. According to the Canadian ambassador (“Our Man in Tehran”), New Zealand embassy staff played an important supporting role. This included providing food, renting a further safe house and transporting the “film crew” to the airport.

“Argo” is film about a film, a Hollywood film in which Hollywood stars. Is the result yet more American hype, another stereotype in which American quick wittedness trumps Middle Eastern mobs?  Not when it reminds us of the grubby side of Hollywood, global exporter of pornographer. Neither when it affirms the American need for international co-operation, their reliance on Canadian partners.  Nor when it celebrates peace.

The last words in “Argo” are left to Jimmy Carter, the United States President at that time. A Nobel Peace Prize winner (2002), his conclusion, as the credits role on “Argo,” provides a distinctly unAmerican approach to conflict resolution.

“We did it peacefully.”

Words which echo those of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” So often dismissed by the cynical realist, in “Argo” they capture a truth that really is stranger than fiction.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide, Australia. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

Posted by steve at 08:54 PM

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