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
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.”