The Best Picture Oscar-winning “Argo” has so piqued the Iranian government that not only does it plan to sue (whom, where, and how TBD), it is planning to tackle Hollywood on its home turf.
The Iranian Art Bureau has announced it will fund a movie of its own entitled “The General Staff” about how six American diplomats were spirited to safety during the 1979 Iranian revolution.
It might even appear at a movie theater near you.
Political retaliation through moviemaking, however, is hardly a new phenomenon, note movie experts, who say the fact that Iran has moved from issuing fatwas to producing films in response to what it considers offensive works of art speaks to the power of movies as political props.
“Movies have always been political,” says Prof. Lester Friedman, chairman of the media and society department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. Nations as well as individuals have long used the power of film to persuade both at home and abroad, he says.
An Iranian version of “Argo” is not likely to play much outside the home country, he points out, but adds, “this is part of the point,” namely, to counter outside influences and control the narrative for your own constituency.
This was certainly the case in the Soviet Union in 1982 in the aftermath of the Oscar-nominated “Reds,” director and star Warren Beatty’s take on radical writer John Reed during the Russian revolution.
Soviet officials reportedly were miffed by the depiction of an American who was at first besotted by the radical ideas of the revolution but who lost faith as the totalitarian aftermath set in. They immediately gave the green light to an ambitious multi-part film saga dubbed “Red Bells,” says Northeastern University Russian expert, Harlow Robinson, who is currently finishing a book on Russian cinema.
Mr. Robinson, who was a graduate student in the Soviet Union at the time, is quick to point out that while it was highly unlikely that the film “Reds” would have been seen by many Soviet citizens during such a closed period in its history, the government still felt the need to promote its own version of history.
He says he is witnessing the fruits of such control in the Russian students he sees in his own classes today. These students – many of whom were not even born before the fall of the authoritarian Soviet state, still do not know important things about Soviet history.
“They will tell me ‘we don’t learn these things about Lenin or Stalin,’ ” he says, noting that “films are very powerful and it’s almost impossible to underestimate the role they play in teaching people about their own culture.”
Indeed, during one of the most politicized periods in Hollywood’s history – the 1950’s McCarthy era – American filmmakers battled with each other through film.
Many film buffs consider “High Noon” (1952) – directed by Fred Zinneman, who was eventually blacklisted during the so-called “red scare” fostered by McCarthyism – an important touchstone of American political filmmaking.
Its depiction of a loner against the community was seen as a commentary on the pressure being put on Hollywood to rout out communist influences through the House Un-American Activities Committee. “John Wayne’s version showed them all working together,” points out Friedman, which was considered much more American.
China put the full force of its government propaganda machine behind the 2011 debut of “Beginning of the Great Revival,” a film commemorating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, on nearly all the nation’s 6,200 movie screens.
While the Chinese film showed at some 29 American theaters at the time, it is possible that the Iranian counterpunch to “Argo” could jump the borders, points out Seton Hall University film professor Christopher Sharrett.
Marketers might try for "tie-in" sales by linking the film to “Argo,” he notes, but it's doubtful this would sell the film on its own. On the other hand, he adds via e-mail, “controversy sells, so we may get to see it, although not at the multiplex.”