Reviewed by Andrew DeCort
Amidst strong competition, it’s debatable whether deserved to win this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. But it’s undoubtedly a great movie, and it’s worth paying attention to for at least six reasons.
First, doesn’t hesitate to expose the moral shadiness of the US’s relations with Iran as the backdrop to the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis.
The film begins with a narrator telling us that in 1950 the Iranians elected a secular democratic prime minister who nationalized Iran’s oil. Only three years later, the US and Great Britain engineered a coup d’état and installed Reza Pahlavi as prime minister, a man known for his opulence and brutality who initiated “an era of torture and fear.” During the 1979 Revolution, Pahlavi was overthrown by his people but then given asylum by the US government.
With this checkered political context in the foreground, the camera immediately swoops down into the teeming crowd of protestors outside the US embassy in Tehran and the wick of the film begins to smolder. Later, an official in the US State Department says to one of his colleagues, “We did it to them first. What’d you expect? We helped the guy torture and de-ball an entire population.”
Given that is a film made by Americans for Americans in a moment of heightening tension with Iran. This kind of honest self-criticism should be celebrated as a mark of intelligent storytelling and morally respectable patriotism.
Second, it’s always worth paying attention to how a film portrays ‘the other,’ and, happily, doesn’t depict all Iranians as mad dogs and dupes. For example, we’re shown footage of an Iranian college student giving a speech, in which she argues, “The United States claims to defend human rights…It does not only not defend them, it violates them for all nations. We demand extradition of a man who for more than 37 years with US-support has killed months-old babies in the arms of their mothers.” To be sure, we could have encountered more Iranians, but the film does a decent job of not lumping ‘the other’ into a single stereotype.
Third, consistently makes fun of Hollywood and humorously criticizes the emptiness in a lot of it. Early on, John Goodman (John) says to Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), “So, you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” In another scene, Alan Arkin (Lester) admits to being estranged from his family and says, “[Movie-making] is a bullshit business like coal mining: you come home to your wife and kids, and you can’t wash it off.” It was nice that Hollywood gave Best Picture to a film that rejected self-congratulation in the midst of helping pull off a ridiculous rescue mission.
Fourth, despite some historical inaccuracies, is a gripping story that arrests your interest even though you know the outcome in advance.
Fifth, in the midst of the suspense and seriousness, the movie is laced with jokes and has some pretty hilarious moments.
Finally, depicts personal responsibility as the key to political action. In the midst of arguing for using a Space opera shot in Iran as a ruse to rescue six Americans, Mendez says to his boss in the State Department, “There are only bad options. It’s about finding the best one…This is the best bad idea we have by far.” Later, when his boss gets cold feet and pulls the plug on the mission, Mendez declares, “I’m responsible. I’m taking them through!” And he does.
If not the ‘best’ picture, this is a very good one.