By Talin Baghdadlian
Last Sunday’s 85th Academy Awards conveyed, more than anything else, Hollywood’s (and the United States’) domination of cinema around the world.
Over the years, Hollywood has exported American values alongside its films. In essence, Hollywood is one of America’s strongest exports not only for financial reasons, but also because of the cultural power it projects. A film’s ability to capture an audience member’s attention for a few hours is one of the strongest means of projecting soft power. In 2012, of the top 20 grossing Hollywood films, 19 made 50% or more of their total box office revenue from international markets. Ten of these top 20 films were actions films, and four of the 20 are children’s movies. According to a study published in the Journal of International Business and Cultural Studies, “a strong foreign demand [exists] for action movies and children’s movies, which earn an extra $15 million to $26 million premium for the favored genres in foreign box office revenue.” In children and action films the general Hollywood formula is that there are a “good guy” and a “bad guy,” and in the end justice is served when the so-called “good guy” triumphs over his enemies.
Best Picture-winner Argo is no different. It tells the story of a CIA agent who successfully extracted six American Foreign Service officers from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. The movie champions the creativity and ingenuity of the CIA and has American audiences cheering the Americans’ escape.
But how did the film’s release play out on the world stage?
According to international box office results (i.e. not including the U.S.), Argo made $77 million, accounting for 37.2% of its total box office gross. But how did people react to it?
Let’s take a look at the countries featured (or that perhaps should have been featured) in the film. For one thing, the British were upset at how the movie stated that they did not help the six Americans when they were seeking refuge. In fact, the British allowed the six to stay for a night in one of their compounds until helping them get to the Canadians.
Even though Canada was shown in a somewhat positive light as the do-gooders who harbored the six Americans for nearly 3 months, Canadian Ambassador at the time Ken Taylor holds that not enough credit was given. According to Taylor, “The movie’s fun, it’s thrilling, it’s pertinent, it’s timely…but look, Canada was not merely standing around watching events take place. The CIA was a junior partner.” Furthermore, he urged Affleck to make a very costly change in order to somewhat rectify the situation. The postscript in the original film downplayed Canada’s role, but now it reads “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian Embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.” This doesn’t do much, but it does recognize the efforts taken by the Canadians that “completed” those of the CIA’s. Other than harboring the six and ensuring their safety while they were houseguests, “All the documentation to authenticate the diplomats as Canadians, the business cards, credit cards, the passports, the academic credentials, everything came out of Canada.” Furthermore, Ottawa was also planning several exit strategies before the CIA showed up.
Perhaps the most important reaction comes from the country that’s depicted fairly one-dimensionally, Iran. Argo has been officially banned from Iranian cinemas, but that hasn’t stopped Iranians from watching bootlegged copies of the movie. Some reactions from Iranaccuse the film of being CIA propaganda, that it depicts Iranians as ruthless and violent people, and fails to accurately depict history as it happened (e.g., skirting the fact that the Shah that was overthrown was in fact the leader the U.S. put in place). Some of the most strongly worded criticism came from Fars News, a leader in Iranian independent news:
“In a rare occasion in Oscar history, the First Lady announced the winner for Best Picture for the anti-Iran Film ‘Argo,’ which is produced by the Zionist company Warner Bros.”
As an official response to Argo, Tehran has announced that it will fund a film that aims to correct the story depicted in this year’s Best Picture winner. Whether this proposed film will get international release is uncertain, but Argo has already reached millions of people and has depicted a version of history that, in the end, (and while not entirely accurate) shows the U.S. and the CIA in a good light. And this is precisely where America’s soft power lies.