My labeling of Argo as ‘racist’ is explained wonderfully by Juan Cole’s piece entitled “Argo” as Orientalism and why it Upsets Iranians published on juancole.com. Here it is excerpted below, although I recommend reading the piece in its entirety:
The taking of US diplomatic personnel hostage by radical Iranian activists and angry crowds in November of 1979, and then the backing for this action of the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was profoundly illegal. I know some of the former hostages, and deeply sympathize with their trauma. Nothing justifies what was done to them.
But Ben Affleck’s otherwise fine, Oscar-winning film, “Argo,” about the escape of some US embassy personnel, functions as American propaganda and a sort of neo-Orientalism. That it was based on a memoir of the incident by a former Central Intelligence Agency operative involved in the rescue is part of the problem. That memoir is a primary source and valuable, but good history, and good story-telling about history, weights sources and tries to correct for their biases. “Argo” does not. Some of the Iranian objections to the film are equally grounded in propaganda concerns, but some are legitimate.
It isn’t just that the memoir slights the massive contribution of the Canadian embassy and Canadian diplomats to the mission and plays up the relatively minor CIA role. (Virtually every good idea that contributed to the success of the rescue came from Canada, but somehow American movie audiences insist that it all has to be about us.) Nor that Britain’s important role is denied and even denigrated Nor is my main objection that a whole series of exciting events are invented that never occurred. It is that the entire context for these events is virtually absent and the Iranian characters are depicted as full of mindless rage.
Although the film begins with an info-dump that explains that the US screwed over Iran by having the CIA overthrow the elected government in 1953 and then helped impose a royal dictatorship in the form of the restored shah, that part of the film is emotionally flat. It tells, it doesn’t show. It is tacked on. It does not intersect with the subsequent film in any significant way. It therefore has no emotional weight and does little to contextualize the Iranian characters (none of whose names I think we even learn).
Former hostage and superb American diplomatic John Limbert makes the same point in Foreign Policy:
“Argo highlights the negative attitudes that the two countries have held toward each other for decades. Its brief introduction attempts to provide historical context behind the embassy takeover, but the film does not convey the prevailing Iranian sense of grievance — real or imagined — that led to the 1979 attack, and to the emotional response in the streets of Tehran . . . More than three decades later, the same atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust, and festering wounds dominates Iranian-American relations.”
You could have had Iranian characters angry that the American-backed Shah or king, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, had arbitrarily imprisoned them or their friends among the dissidents, and had subjected both intellectuals and members of openly revolutionary groups to torture and murder in prison. That would not in any way have justified what was done to Foreign Service Officers of the State Department, but it would have humanized the Iranian villains of the piece and made the film more complex and less like a comic book.
“Argo” could have been a moment when Americans come to terms with their Cold War role as villains in places like Iran. It could have been a film about what intelligence analysts call “blowback,” when a covert operation goes awry. Instead it plays into a ‘war on terror’ narrative of innocent Americans victimized by essentially deranged foreign mobs.