Iran sees conspiracy in box office success of Ben Affleck's 'Argo'

Based on true events surrounding the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, 'Argo' opened this weekend at No. 2 and rose to the top spot on Monday. Iranians are less enthused.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros./AP
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.

American moviegoers flocked to theaters this weekend to see Ben Affleck's long-anticipated thriller Argo, which has been generating headlines since it was first screened at the Toronto Film Festival last month. 

Based on a true story about how the CIA smuggled six American diplomats out of Iran after the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy, the film opened on Oct. 12 and came in at No. 2 in box office sales over the weekend, after "Taken 2" (an action film starring Liam Neeson). By Oct. 15, Argo held the top spot. 

But inside Iran, where the decision by a group of Iranian students to storm the US Embassy and hold Americans hostage for 444 days is still controversial and vibrantly debated, the press has paid Argo scant attention. The few comments the film has received are generally negative – Iran's state-run IRNA news agency called Argo "Hollywood’s latest failed attempt to confront the Islamic Revolution" – and replete with complaints that the movie portrays all Iranians as stereotypically aggressive and unrefined and fails to give viewers enough historical context. (Pirated copies of American films typically become available in Iran a few months before the films open in the US, and are easily accessed by the public.)

Argo makes the people of Iran look like they have no self-determination, and indisputably support violence,” writes Meysam Karimi in a lengthy review for the popular Iran-based film magazine website, Moviemag.  “For me, as an Iranian … this makes [the storyline behind] Argo much less believable.”

Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency labels Argo “anti-Iranian" and painted the film as a flop. Citing unidentified "news agencies," it asserted that Argo only managed to reach second place in the US and Canada because the filmmakers artificially boosted sales by purchasing tickets “en masse” and giving them away for free to random people.  

Argo “was unable to become a box office hit in spite of considerable advertisement," Fars wrote. “The filmmakers tried very hard and used a variety of methods to increase ticket sales, but they were unsuccessful. … Even though ‘Taken 2’ was in its second week, Argo still couldn’t beat it to first place in the box office … due to a lack of interest among its own [North American] audience.”

Moviemag, the privately owned online film magazine, is more sober in its assessment of the film, acknowledging Ben Affleck’s strong directorial skill and the film’s attention-grabbing story line and giving the film a four out of five star rating.

"If I were to set aside issues [with how Iran is portrayed], I must admit that Argo is one of this year’s best movies, and expect it to be awarded an Oscar for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin’s role," he writes. 

“Without a doubt, a non-Iranian viewer will highly enjoy seeing Argo because the story is strong and keeps the viewer’s attention through to the end,” he adds. “But for an Iranian who counts this subject as part of our country’s history, the view may be a bit different.”

Almost all coverage of Argo also noted that the film’s Toronto Film Festival debut, Sept. 7, is the same day Canada closed its embassy this year in Tehran and announced the expulsion of Iran’s diplomats from Ottawa.    

“Perhaps it was a coincidence,” writes Mr. Karimi for Moviemag. “But for [the embassy closure] to take place during the Toronto Film Festival, right when this film was being screened, somewhat undermines the theory that this happened by accident.”

Follow Roshanak Taghavi on Twitter at @RoshanakT.

(This article was updated after first posting to correct the spelling of the capital of Canada.)

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