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0:02:50 Crowds are bigger today

The Takeover: Argo’s 2:50 to 10:14

By Stephanie DeLuca

[1] The initial student occupants weren’t foaming at the mouth for American blood on November 4, 1979. They were not ruthless “militants armed with machine guns” (Mendez). They were not “terrorists” (President Jimmy Carter, qtd in Mendez xx), nor were they Affleck’s barbarians screaming and running as if their heads were chopped off. They were students from universities near Tehran who wished to “set-in.” The majority were twenty-something students pissed off that the United States gave a free pass to a ruthless, evil “prick” for humanitarian reasons on October 23, 1979 – when this “prick” (Affleck’s Jordan’s words, not mine, although the sentiment is the same) exiled and hung his dissidents from cranes, held extravagant and lavish celebrations while his people starved, took advantage of his authority to place colleagues in positions of power, and instilled a ruthless, torturous police force called the SAVAK to protect himself from his own people.

[2] Iranian students Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, Moshen Mirdamadi, and Habibullah Bitara engineered a plan to occupy the American embassy for three days. The group of students called themselves the Student Followers of the Imam’s Line and had a reputation of being “more curious than hostile” (Bowden 95). They had only hoped their grievances would be heard, beginning with the coup d’état in 1953, the decades of America’s support of a man wanted for murder of thousands, and, finally, granting him asylum. Frustrated and angry as the students were, they agreed that their takeover would be “strictly nonviolent.”

[3] But we all know that there’s no such thing as nonviolence and reason in Iran. The news reports, the films, the 24/7 coverage – we’ve either been saturated with the notion that we Americans can do no wrong or are oblivious to the wrong that we have been doing and have done for years. The fact is that the takeover “was supposed to be a small, short-term affair. We were just a bunch of students who wanted to show our dismay at the United States” (Penn).

[4] Demonstrations were not foreign to the people of Iran, nor were they something of dire concern to Americans working at the embassy. Iranian religious leader and political activist Ayatollah Khomeini was arrested in 1963 and then again in 1964 for his outspoken, anti-Shah sentiment. He was eventually exiled, during which for fifteen years he wrote against the Shah’s regime in Iran. His detention garnered widespread support and resulted in a constant flow of major demonstrations, and his following gained momentum as the Shah spent billions of oil dollars on military weapons. Khomeini’s encouragement of “attacks” on America was “so commonplace” that it was just considered the climate. Argo invites us to one of these typical demonstrations and what a former hostage and political officer Michael Metrinko calls the “usual rabble” and “standard background noise.” Demonstrations were described by Metrinko to include “young men with beards (2:57), women in loose black manteaus (3:07), white-bearded old men (2:52) with stained teeth carrying signs (3:18), chanting slogans both triumphant and hateful (2:53), shaking their fists in the air (2:59), burning American flags (2:45) and giant dolls of President Carter (2:58) and other Western leaders” (Bowden 26). Bob Anders, consular officer, says in Argo that the “carnival is bigger today” as he looks over the crowd.

[5] The trouble is that the Students of the Imam’s Line were up against a multitude of Iranian organizations with similar – yet varying degrees of – disdain for the United States. When the Shah was overthrown in 1979, Khomeini returned with a vengeance and was welcomed by a crowd of approximately five million people. He immediately organized a coalition made of conservative clerics, secular leftists, nationalists, and modernist reformers. As Argo portrays in its opening scene, an era of score-settling and death squads ensued. On April 1, 1979, the “Islamic Republic” was recognized as the official government of Iran. Asgharzadeh recalls that the takeover “turned into a power battle. The temporary government was crushed, and the more revolutionary and radical forces gained self-confidence and self-assurance” (Penn). Asgharzadeh’s physical positioning at the embassy on November 4, 1979, was a testament to that power struggle: the plan was for Asgharzadeh to “stay back and try to make sure that those entering were members of his own group, and then see that the gates were locked behind them” (Bowden 14). The students of the Imam’s Line knew that “if they were going to maintain control of the action they needed to prevent rival political organizations from storming inside.”

[6] But their desire to maintain peace and be heard was no match for Khomeini’s forces, and no match for Affleck’s Argo.

[7] Mark Bowden, the genius who brought the truth of the hostage situation to the people, describes how the Students Following the Imam’s Line tried to differentiate themselves from those very rival groups and why: the students wore “laminated images of Khomeini around their necks in order to distinguish themselves from other, mostly left-wing political groups that rushed to join the protest. . . . [they] spent much of their first day on the embassy grounds fending off these rivals, who they feared would muddy the purity of their protest with ideological cant, or even harm the Americans.”

[8] The pace of Argo’s embassy takeover is so quick, however, that it does not allow you to think about what you are seeing. You’re only permitted to feel what you’re seeing, and what you’re seeing is a group of foreigners with guns, knives, fire, and hatred so strong it’s difficult to comprehend. Screenwriter Chris Terrio’s dedication to historical detail becomes muffled and lost in the chaos, emotion, and suspense of these first few scenes. Terrio’s script alludes to the “plastic bibs with photographs of Ayatollah Khomeini,” and there is indeed a student shown picketing for approximately two seconds wearing this lamination (3:04 – 3:06). But this faceless student is shown shortly after an irate young man stabs and destroys a straw-stuffed doll, presumably symbolic of a western leader, for a whopping eight seconds (2:58-3:06). Terrio also includes a cue that states “a group of STUDENTS -- these more brisk, organized, all bearded and dressed in flak jackets -- push their way to the front of the protest --.” At this moment in Argo an aerial view of angry Iranian protestors chanting “Death to America” with their fists in the air takes over the frame. A group of ten or so of Terrio’s students are indeed pushing themselves toward the gate, but I’m not necessarily sure “more organized” is an appropriate way to describe what we’re seeing. More forceful, perhaps, but definitely not more organized.

[9] For the sake of drama and at the expense of truth, Affleck minimizes the nonviolent Students of the Imam’s Line and depicts all of the protestors as unorganized and violent. The Iranian perspective would have benefited from the students’ nonviolence, and I really consider it a missed opportunity given the amount of research that went into this film. When protesters make it past Alan B. Golacinski and up to the Chancery Office, we’re shown a massive group of Iranians running like mad down a hallway (9:44) with a shot of a young Iranian screaming at petrified Americans cowering behind desks (9:55). Cues in Argo’s script read: “the students, guns drawn, burst into the Chancery Office, shouting at Ann Swift and the others. The mood among the staffers is now almost peaceful.” But in real life Ann Swift and the other staffers were behind a bolted door, and Ann was speaking with Washington when she was advised to let the Iranians in as prolonging this was “pointless.” Another American hostage in the Chancery office with Swift recalls the Iranians “draped with their Khomeini placards . . . [who] stopped abruptly when one of their leaders raised his hands over his head and bellowed, ‘We are going to do this is a well-organized way!’” (Bowden 63).

[10] No laminations here and certainly no organization – just a bearded Iranian running at Swift flailing a gun in her face.

[11] Argo does not have time for American defeat, Iranian reason, or the students’ nonviolent organization attempt. Golacinski, the embassy's security officer, remembers that “no one appeared to be in charge”: there were violent ones, moderate ones, and ones just “going with the flow.” Asgharzadeh verifies that the students became “hostages of the hostages” and “lost control of events very quickly.” National deputy adviser David Aaron believes that Khomeini began to see how he could use the hostage crisis to “clean out café liberals who were running the government” – which he successfully did – and it resulted in the chaos seen on the big screen (Bowden, "Among the Hostage-Takers).

[12] But most troubling is Affleck’s decision to rely on the violent protestors to tell the story rather than those Golacinski describes as “going with the flow.” In real life Golacinski opened the doors to the embassy in an attempt to cooperate and recalls the short-lived success of that decision: “I was getting it settled down . . . [but] then things started coming apart. They took me out in front of the embassy, tied me up, and they started yelling for the people inside to come out. They produced a weapon, cocked it, and put it to my head.” The scene in the film that relates to this memory is troubling. None of the progress Golacinski refers to (as brief a statement as it is) is evident. In Argo’s rendition, Golacinski’s decision to go outside (7:54) is followed by the removal of Golacinski’s bulletproof vest and the shock of his colleagues (7:58-8:00). As he is unlatching the door, the scene jumps to an armed Iranian outside the embassy. The camera is cleverly placed below the man so the sun illuminates him and his raised gun. The camera jumps again and pans the angry protesters of the large crowd (8:01 – 8:06) before we see the embassy door open (8:07). Golacinski does not even have the time to look up, let alone take a breath; he is immediately pulled into and overtaken by the crowd. As quickly as the scene begins, it ends with Americans running down an embassy corridor with sensitive material for the incinerator. By 8:24, less than thirty seconds after Golacinski emerges from the embassy doors, he is banging on them begging for his life.

[13] Communications officer William Belk recalls his hands being bound with a nylon rope (Bowden 64). When a young Iranian used a knife to cut off a strip, he accidentally jabbed Belk in the side and quickly said, “oh, I’m sorry.” Another hostage panicked when a magazine was lit on fire and put toward his face: “‘Don’t burn me!’ he screamed. ‘Shoot me, don’t burn me!’ ‘No, no, no,’ one of the Iranians told him. ‘For the gas. For the gas’” (Bowden 58). Michael Gallegos, a young marine officer, recalls wondering why he was shaking as the young Iranians tied and blindfolded him. He realized shortly after that it was the two men holding him (Penn).

[14] These moments of humility, tenderness, and fear are overridden by the anger and panic. I’m brought back to documentary filmmaker and co-director Emad Burnat’s 2011 Five Broken Cameras, an incredibly moving chronological diary cut into five episodes that focuses on a village’s nonviolent resistance to the West Bank separation barrier. In the midst of crossfire, death, grenades, army tanks, and bombings, Emad’s young son Gibreel hands an olive branch, symbolic of the village’s struggle, to an Israeli officer.

[15] Among all of the violence, force, and chaos in Argo’s takeover of the American embassy, can you imagine how powerful a scene of compassion between an Iranian and an American would be?