The 'Argo' effect: Film could stoke suspicions about Americans abroad

The Oscar-winning film 'Argo' tells of how CIA operatives posed as a film crew to free hostages in Iran in 1979. The film could reinforce impressions in some countries that Americans are government agents.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros./AP/File
This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bryan Cranston (l.) as Jack O’Donnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in 'Argo,' a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Filming in remote locations has never been a cakewalk, but thanks to Oscar’s top choice, “Argo,” it just got a teensy bit harder, say some intelligence and entertainment industry watchers. The film depicts Hollywood producers helping the CIA spring six American diplomats from 1979 revolutionary Iran by posing them as a film crew.

While the events are decades old, say experts, the message is current and more persuasive in many countries than ever: Americans abroad are the tools of their government and not to be trusted.

“It’s not something you can measure easily,” says David Barrett, a political scientist at Villanova University and author of "The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy." But, he says, “if I were a film company sending my team into Iran or North Korea or Vietnam or any number of countries, it would be prudent to assume that my team would be the object of suspicion.”

“I would also assume this movie ["Argo"] may have confirmed this suspicion for many who do not read books but do see movies,” he adds.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s decision to bring in none other than first lady Michelle Obama to announce the best film Oscar – which just happened to be "Argo" – only amplifies the impression that the relationship between the US government and Hollywood is totally chummy.

“That decision crossed a line,” says Chuck Evered, a director and writer whose film, “A Thousand Cuts,” was recently nominated for a Saturn Award, one that honors science fiction films.

If the industry wanted to send a message of independence from government influence, he says, “that would not be the choice you would make.... If we are all in each other’s back pockets, how effective as storytellers can we be?”

The CIA has used any number of covers over the years, says Peter Earnest, a 35-year CIA veteran and executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington. He says he was involved in numerous intelligence operations and points out that “there are any number of countries where if you even speak a foreign language or ask questions you will become an object of suspicion, so Americans are not alone in this.”

The fallout from this suspicion spreads beyond Americans abroad. A Pakistani doctor who conducted a fake vaccination program on behalf of the US to help identify DNA in the final hunt for Osama bin Laden “is now in prison,” Mr. Earnest notes.

In the cold war era, CIA agents would also pose as foreign correspondents, says Mark Tatge, a journalism professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “One reason reporters have been detained, tortured, and even killed is because of past misrepresentations on the part of the US government," he says in an e-mail. "An American in a foreign land is immediately suspect.”

The CIA says it is careful in its dealings with Hollywood. “Over the years, CIA has engaged with writers, documentary filmmakers, movie and TV producers, and others in the entertainment industry. Our goal is an informed and balanced portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, their vital mission, and the commitment to public service that defines them,” an agency spokesman said in an e-mail.

“The protection of national security equities is always paramount in any engagement with the entertainment industry," the e-mail adds.

What is interesting in all of this discussion about "Argo" is that the other Oscar-nominated CIA-related movie this year, "Zero Dark Thirty," “has nearly completely dropped from the headlines," says Dennis Mazzocco, a communication professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

He notes that the US Senate on Tuesday dropped its plans to investigate the film’s ties to the intelligence community. This decision came after months of challenges from members of Congress about the film’s depictions of waterboarding. 

Professor Mazzocco suggests that struggles between the government and Hollywood over film content may hint at a bigger danger. “We live in a time when we can finally begin to discuss the greatest threat to storytellers everywhere: fear of censorship and political retribution by authorities.” The film was subjected to an indirect form of censorship, he says. “This is the far greater danger to filmmakers.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to