Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo," which is set in Tehran during… (Keith Bernstein / Warner…)
TEHRAN -- Since the news from Hollywood flashed early Monday in Iran, text messages have been passing the word: A film widely denounced here as a stereotyped, anti-Iranian caricature won the coveted Oscar for best picture.
"I am secular, atheist and not pro-regime but I think the film 'Argo' has distorted history and insulted Iranians," said Hossain, a cafe owner worried about business because of customers' lack of cash in a sanctions-battered economy. "For me, it wasn't even a good thriller."
"Argo" may have won over film academy voters, but it gets no love on the streets of Iran.
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The perception that the film portrayed Iranians uniformly as bearded, violent fanatics rankled many who recall that Iran's 1979 revolution had both secular and religious roots -- and ousted a dictatorial monarch, the shah of Iran, reviled as a corrupt and brutal puppet of Washington.
The thriller is based on a true story in which six U.S. diplomats were rescued amid the turmoil of the U.S. Embassy takeover, under the cover of making a Hollywood sci-fi film.
"I did not enjoy seeing my fellow countrymen and women insulted," said Farzaneh Haji, an educated homemaker and fan of romantic movies who was 18 at the time of the revolution. "The men then were not all bearded and fanatical. To be anti-American was a fashionable idea among young people across the board. Even non-bearded and U.S.-educated men and women were against American imperialism."
Adding to the widespread dismay is the fact that the best-picture nod for "Argo" came two days before Iranian and Western officials are scheduled to meet in Kazakhstan for the latest talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program, the latest U.S.-Iran crisis.
When "Argo" was released last year, some hard-line commentators in Iran declared the film a bellicose salvo paving the way for a U.S. attack on the country's nuclear infrastructure. Many in the West view Iran's nuclear program as a covert bomb-building endeavor. Iran insists that its only goal is peaceful use of nuclear power.
Others here argued that "Argo" lacked credibility, especially the climactic scene in which (spoiler alert) gun-wielding revolutionary guards on the tarmac at Tehran's airport chase the Swissair flight spiriting the six American diplomats aloft to safety -- an invented chase that was more Hollywood gloss than reality.
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"As an action film or thriller, the film was good, but it was not believable, especially the way the six Americans escaped from the airport," said Farshid Farivar, 49, a Hollywood devotee, as he stretched his legs in an office where he does promotional work. "At any rate, it was an average film and did not deserve an Oscar."
"Argo" was widely viewed in Iran on bootleg DVD copies that go for less than $1 on sidewalk stands. Sanitized and censored thrillers, sometimes with female protagonists omitted, are the only Hollywood fare deemed suitable for theaters and state-run television, though many people have access to international satellite movie channels.
The reformist daily Shargh quoted former President Carter, who noted that the role of Canada in the rescue was "under-appreciated," a theme that has also stirred spirited debate in that country. The six escaped with the help of the then-Canadian ambassador to Tehran. Although his character has a role in the film, the hero is a CIA operative played by Ben Affleck, who also directed "Argo."
In many ways, U.S.-Iranian relations are still reflected in both nations through the traumatic prism of the hostage crisis that played out more than three decades ago.
Here in Iran's capital, there are some who simply didn't want to be reminded of what they view as the revolution's enduring, calamitous consequences -- a stifling theocracy, decades of international isolation and the pulverizing Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, a conflict that saw many foreign powers siding with Saddam Hussein’s frontal attack on the Islamic Republic.
"I am ashamed of what was done, and the results of the hostage taking were catastrophic for Iran," said Hassan, who, like several others critical of the government, declined to give his full name, fearing retribution. “Iran became a lawless country. We were kicked out of the international family and we were alone when invaded by Iraq. Now an American filmmaker wants to make my traumatized conscience bleed again? Give me a break. I did not even bother to wait for the end of the film. I know what happened in my country. There is no need for me to watch a distorted version from someone in Hollywood.”