Good cinema, bad history

Argo director treads on shaky historical ground


Good cinema, bad history
by Saideh Pakravan

“Argo” is a great thriller, well-acted (special kudos to John Goodman and Alan Arkin), with spectacular cinematography in an Istanbul passing off as Tehran and a nail-bitingly suspenseful last half-hour (see Craig Younkin’s review). Incredibly, the far-fetched story really happened. The year is 1979 with Iran’s Islamic Revolution in full swing. In November, when the terminally ill Shah who has left Iran months before is allowed into the United States for humanitarian reasons, the wild-eyed bearded revolutionaries who overthrew him scale the walls of the U.S. Embassy and take the American staff hostage. Six of these manage to escape and make their way to the Canadian Ambassador’s residence, a haven safe only as long as the Islamists don’t realize that not all diplomats are accounted for.

The CIA scrambles for a way to bring them home until one daring “exfiltration” specialist comes up with a plan so absurd it can only succeed: pass off the diplomats as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi film. Never mind how implausible that would appear to Iranian authorities in charge of delivering permits for the crew to do its work, it’s a desperate last measure.

It is to Ben Affleck’s credit that although we know things will go as planned in the film as they did in reality, we are kept on the edge of our seat as one setback follows another. Where the director treads on more shaky ground is the history behind the story. Is this important? Does it matter? It certainly does, if only to avoid snap judgments and paint historical figures with a simplistic brush.

Seeking to establish context, the preamble in “Argo” describes a pre-revolutionary time, 1953 to be exact, where a “democratically elected leader,” Mohammad Mossadegh, was overthrown by a coup from the CIA who installed in his place a puppet devoted to the West, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah, we’re told, lived a lavish lifestyle, had his meals flown in from France on the Concord while his people starved and died on the streets or under torture at the hands of his secret police, Savak.

This historical chestnut has unfortunately been making the rounds forever. Even President Obama has repeated it time after time and apologized to the Iranian people for American interference. (In one retelling, to the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg, he actually called Mossadegh “Iran’s democratically elected president,” instead of prime minister.)

This may make good copy or good cinema but doesn’t reflect the reality of what happened, which is far more complex. First of all, the CIA did not “install” the Shah who had already been on the throne since 1941, that is, for twelve years, replacing his father who had been sent into exile by the British. Mossadegh was appointed PM by the Shah, not democratically elected, though he received a vote of confidence from the Iranian Parliament with a quorum of seventy-nine representatives, the lowest possible number. A tug-of-war followed, with the ambitious PM (patriotic and rightly determined to keep Iran’s wealth, its oil, out of the hands of the British) butting heads over strategy with a young and impressionable Shah and establishing alliances with a number of unsavory characters, from communists to mullahs. After a while, he was asked to step down, yet reappointed in 1952, where he governed by martial law, hardly a democratic process, until he was overthrown. That coup, yes, was certainly funded by U.S. and British secret services but also bolstered by a certain amount of popular uprising.

Regarding the Shah himself, not only was he not the Oriental potentate eager to fill his own pockets, flatter Western powers and eliminate his opponents but quite to the contrary, he was obsessed with making Iran the most advanced country possible and his people educated, well-off and successful. Any cursory search will list his achievements in turning Iran into a modern state, such as women’s rights that even the ayatollahs have not been able to take away entirely.

Unfortunately, the Shah was suspicious of an opposition which, as conspiracy-minded as any Mid-Eastern, he saw as fuelled by enemies of Iran such as the Soviet Union. In a hurry to reach his goals, the means became less important. As he told David Frost in one of the last interviews he gave, he put himself above the fray, calling repression and torture “petty details.” This is all the more unforgivable because he was the opposite of a bloodthirsty tyrant.

After the revolution of 1979, Paul Balta of the leftist newspaper Le Monde, no friend of the Shah’s, put the total number of executions under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s 37-year reign at less than 400, including criminals and drug lords. To put things in perspective, we should note that the Islamic Republic, in its three decades in existence, has killed tens of thousands of Iranians, not counting the hundreds of thousands killed in the eight-year old conflict with Iraq. But there is a major difference: The Shah wanted Iran to be respected and admired and considered civilized, which means sticking to the principles of civilized governments, which he didn’t, whereas the Islamic Republic doesn’t care.

Still, a trickle started a while back, growing into a steady stream, of a change of opinion regarding the Shah. He is being pulled out of the gallery of 20th –century rogue despots where he had been stuck, so that he is no longer considered in the same light as Bokassa or Pol Pot or Duvallier but gradually recognized as a leader who had a flawed albeit deep love of his country. Also, like Affleck but with more dire consequences, he wasn’t a student of history. Had he been, he would have known that people who are forcefully driven toward a goal, worthy as that goal may be, will end up rebelling.

First published in


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"CIA has been incompetent "

by Schahram on

This is what they want us to believe. In fact, they were very competent and effective. 


Since when CIA is a credible

by firstdayofmylife on

Since when CIA is a credible source? CIA has been incompetent over and over again throughout the years....CIA is clueless.  They have gotten everything wrong from Vietnam, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Libya to Iran throughout the years.

Saman Ahmadi

cia's own account of mossadegh overthrow

by Saman Ahmadi on 


Please don't send a copy to Ben Affleck Ms Parkravan

by Roger_Rabbit on

You only cheapen yourself if you do so. I don't understand why some insist on taking Hollywood for real? Argo is to entertain not to educate. Hollywood is to entertain and not to educate. How many Hollywood epics do you know that have adhered to the facts religiously? Affleck will only laugh it off. But if you want to set the record straight why don't you start with '300'? Xerxes was framed. I know what I am talking about. Once I was framed too.


dear mrs. Pakravan: This is

by firstdayofmylife on

dear mrs. Pakravan: This is one of the best writings I have read so far on this movie. I think you should send a copy to Mr. Affleck himself.

He was also  oblivious to many other small and big details in the movie. You can't produce quality work about a subject(event, country) when you think Iranians are Arabs.

Thanks again and hope you send him your essay.


Absolut correct analysis.

by Schahram on

Absolut correct analysis, many thanks Saideh Pakravan.

Interesting detail from the diary of a hostage: 

"Nov. 3, 1979. Went to Embassy residence in evening to see movie. After movie was told by Charge´that Consular Section was to be closed the next day so that the front could be repainted where demonstrators had painted slogans. I was surprised to receive this news as I had not heard about elswhere."

What a coincidence.



it’s NOT a desperate last measure. while threat of Sanctions!

by easycake on


NOT a desperate last measure. while threat of Sanctions! 

readers of ... still too many Brain-washed Authors sol royal to
IRI in here ...  Watch out guys , they are trying hard to make many of s
all Numb ! 

this is how this came to be, if
it did not work to take those few diplomats out; it would not be made as a film
in this way!!

 the members of regime
were desperate after the immediate news of Sanctions and other chocking
pressure.. so , those who could do something, would do such things!  

can not believe such criticism
and accusations when the Author here is basing his argument based on his own
day-dreaming... of how great these bunch of Gangs who took over Iran, after the
Commander-in-Chief of Iran [Arteshboad Gharah-Baghee] did what he was suppose
to do based on the military school education he had; and that was to hand the
regime off away form military , cancel any ruling when the escalation is at the
rate where the military members start shooting other member of their own ... !

 first of all, this is a
Drama and a Movie.. so what do you expect ! 

2nd of all, the Child-hood (or adulthood)
education or trainings that the author of this article has gained in his life in
Iran or abroad under the Regimes bombardment of advertisements about how holy
they are themselves vs. how devilish the rest of the powers in their world
are... of course the Author here has to think the Iran's Rulers are not
childish!  well... they were so childish, and look how the world see's
them and acts against them!  

this is how this came to be, if
it did not work, it would not be made as a film ! 



Affleck also did not do his

by firstdayofmylife on

Affleck also did not do his homework properly in contacting some of the key actors in helping the 6 Americans to leave. He would have a much more accurate picture:!/2012/11/argo-canadian-caper-and-story-of-young.html

I find his story more thrilling:

... When my parents left me behind in Iran, they had no idea that the country would unravel so quickly. There were always troubled hot spots in Iran, but they were far to the south of the city and widely scattered. Tehran was relatively peaceful. The earliest evidence of the unrest to come was when one night in early September. While standing on the flat roof of our home and watching the evening unfold in the city below as we often did, a couple of Iranians took pot shots at my father and me. We chalked this up largely to hooliganism. Despite this isolated incident, my father still thought it would be safe for me to stay behind in Tehran, living with my friends

On December 6th I was told that the school was closing and the decision had been made to advance our graduation date to December 8th. I completed my education at Tehran American School that day, and with a great sadness, I walked away from one of the greatest times and adventures of my life.

I went back to the place where I was currently living, packed my bags, and had a friend from the Embassy help me secure a ride to the airport. That night the main streets were filled with violent clashes between the Shah’s army and revolutionaries who popped up ad hoc at almost every major intersection. The driver asked me to hide under some carpets in the back of his van as he maneuvered through the back streets of the heart of the war-torn city.
The airport was controlled chaos. Overnight, it was laid siege by thousands of Americans, Foreign Nationals, and desperate Iranians all seeking to flee the country. Over the course of the next several days, I helped evacuate many of my schoolmates and their families. I can still see the overwhelming look of shock, fear and extreme uncertainty in their eyes. We were all caught in the whirlwind of revolution and those winds would scatter us far and wide.

When the Embassy was seized, Admiral Packard of the European Command Center was having a fit with Washington because they couldn't provide a Farsi linguist for several weeks. My friend, the Staff Sergeant, told him that he knew me from Iran and that I spoke fluent Farsi. According to my friend, the Admiral was "and so what?" This SSgt told him, "Sir, you don't understand; he joined the army, speaks Farsi, and is here in Stuttgart.” That Saturday afternoon my very shaken 1st Lieutenant called me down to the Battalion HQ and told me that he didn’t what I’d done, but I was to have my a## packed and ready to go in 20 minutes. The Admiral was sending a staff car to pick me up.

I spent November 4th, 1979 through November 11th at the European Command Headquarters sitting on the floor manning two telephones and tracking the movements of a group led by Robert Anders, the head of the consular section, and five others who had just fled the overrun US Embassy in Tehran. I fielded calls from Iranians, friends and former employees of the U.S. Government, and American companies still in Iran. As the calls came in, they would be directed to me. Using my knowledge of the streets and bus systems of Tehran, I plotted the group’s day to day, and house to house movements on a large map until they finally reached the relative safety of the home of a Canadian diplomat on November 10th, 1979.

Unlike the movie, the Anders group were actually hidden in a couple of houses; not just the Canadian Ambassador's residence, and it took them 7 days of moving house to house to get there. On November 11th I was relieved of my special duties as the Defense Language Institute trained Farsi linguist arrived on site. For the remaining 4 weeks that I worked at the European Command, I was used to plot information on the Tehran map and was attached to assist my SSGT friend in the EUCOM Communications Unit. By Christmas of 1979 I was returned to my original unit of duty assignment once again, my life and memories in a jumbled upheaval as the saga of the country and people I had come to know and love continued to play out in the news and political fields of the day.

Thirty-three years later, my heart still reaches back to those days and memories. As Iran continues to stay in the headlines, my memories are kept alive. It’s easy for many to condemn what they do not know or understand. But for those of us that lived there and became friends with the people, their music, their food, their customs and their country, we know that there are many good people in Iran, and we hope for the day when peace and sanity will prevail and the doors to their homes will once more open to us. On that day the world will know what we knew then, an ancient and proud civilization steeped in poetry and hospitality…and not the mullah’s Iran of fear and oppression that exists today.


Opinion piece

by saidehpakravan on

Thank you for your comment. As a reminder, this article, first published
on, is not a review of "Argo" but an opinion piece on
the background history. ran the actual review when the
film first screened.


Mossadegh's "election"

by alimostofi on

Actually Mossadegh only got in because so many members had abstained.

FB: astrologer.alimostofi

Darius Kadivar

Great Review Mrs Pakravan

by Darius Kadivar on

Thank you !





Kollektive Memory

by Amousonny on

Thanks for the writing. However, we began with Affleck, and moving through Mossadeq, ended up with the Shah (and a short accurate depiction of his deeds and era.)

Dr. Milani's --relatively-- new book, The Shah, is also a fair and well written account of those times. 




Thank you

by Fred on

A fair, concise and historically accurate write
up, thank you