We do what we’re good at.
Propaganda shows the violence of hegemon’s victims while hiding the violence they react against.
Today’s propaganda has a willing audience and volunteers lining up to provide it. No need for a dark “Ministry of Propaganda,” or “Palace of Truth.” In this heyday it can even afford to play with the strings, let them show, as part of the gloss of sophistication they so fashionably wrap themselves in. Meta-stories inside meta-stories, Russian dolls of intrigue for our enjoyment! Today’s audiences, brought up on escapism demand plausibility and fight to maintain its veneer over their preferred fantasies. Everything is true. Yet it’s all a lie.
The modern spy thriller is the peak of this genre. The atmosphere of savvy pragmatism, the apotheosis of deceit justified in the face of an implacable foe, is the ideal medium in which to weave together tension, fear, and partisan loyalty. The fear of exposure is toyed with, like the dirty secret behind a psychopath’s rampages, it is both a leitmotiv and a stand-in for the entire charade. These are sophisticated Passion Plays crafted to remind the faithful and as a catechism for the young.
A brutal manipulation of our emotions has long been the reason we pay to go to the movies. Any thought of a cinematic equivalent to literature has faded completely from view like the smoke-filled rooms and rust prone clunkers, the heirs of Old Detroit, those mainstays of the seventies American landscape. The sheer adrenaline of our “first” hostage crisis – if you discount countless lead-ups, from Munich to Patty Hearst – blows away any of the measured, reasonable history of American cupidity in the state of Iran at the time of our story. Told in voice-over and cartoon form, a nice play on the storyboards shown later. What is the proper term for a fake movie project within a fictionalized account of a true story?
How is it that any instinct of self-preservation in the face of blatant manipulation has been totally bred out of us? A rhetorical question. The answer is our history for the last, say one hundred plus years. Incredulity now defends the manipulators. Anyone casting doubts on their gospel is taken as incredible. This is beyond irony. Not the smirk of comic disbelief that anything might be shady in Nick’s Casablanca.
Our hunger for intoxication, for the drug of manipulation, is mocked in all the smoking and the drinking on screen. These characters, cast via how well they matched the photo IDs of their sources – except our hero, sporting a cut physique nothing like the unremarkable pear shape of his real-life counterpart. He looked like the result of his life as depicted, not as “drunk Homer Simpson” might see himself reflected in his bathroom mirror. They stand-in for our freedoms. The freedom to consume to excess. The freedom to self-medicate intolerable anxiety instead of looking at root-causes. Only “Monsters” would dare oppose us!
Wry used to be covered by Bond smirking in anticipation as he eyed his next female conquest. Now it is played to the hilt within levels of complexity, with a multifaceted approach, and a studied fairness shown our villains.
It’s a mercy, a minor one, but I guess it’s welcome, that the villains were not played in the middle eastern equivalent of black-face. Today’s ruthless propaganda can afford, must exhibit, an even-mindedness. Its audience feels as sorry for the militants as for the American hicks equally caught up in a black & white furor. Propaganda in the days of Obama is sophisticated, nuanced. Targeted assassinations, indeterminate sentencing, extra-judicial incarceration, the entire program of a global surveillance state, is balanced by support for wind-turbines and electric cars.
Affleck did a great job! A masterpiece in the genre. The true glory is in the way this onion is peeled back. It’s translucent. A story of how the CIA uses plants in Hollywood to develop a subterfuge to further national interests by sowing confusion in Iran. At the end, we are told with a proud smile that our heroes have finally been able to have their work, done on our behalf, acclaimed publicly after so many years.
Ben’s particular smile is the perfect foil for this game within a game. His career has been filled with patriotic set-pieces, just the kind of thing the O.S.S. and its descendants have always paid well for. His Clancy “Oeuvre” alone, enough to earn him some CIA medal of his own. Awful nice of him to share the credit! For too long Hollywood has been the “Canada” they’ve had to hide behind whenever credit is due.
In the end, our endocrine system crashed from all the induced stress, our capacity for empathy disabled for anyone beyond our side, we are thankful for the deceptions. Not just of the alien others,
“Remember! They all went to school in America!”
But also for the skill with which we have been deceived, the great relief this brings us.
What is this film’s final message?
“Rest easy, America!”
“Argo F… Yourself!”