12 February 2011

Movie Review: Iranium

I was able to see a screening of Iranium at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), although I became aware of the Clarion Fund production through a Facebook posting.

This hour long documentary from first time director Alex Trainman explores the ramifications of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79 and the Iranian nuclear program.

The United States under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter stood by and did not help its erstwhile ally the Shah of Iran.  After a brief interim where outsiders hoped for more democracy, a national referendum ushered in the Islamic Revolutionary government led by the Ayatollah Khomeni.  In November 1979, a group of revolutionary Iranian students seized the American Embassy in Tehran taking 66 hostages.  In the end, the 52 American hostages were held for 444 days, until President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.

Director Alex Trainmen adeptly interspersed archival footage from American television with Mid Eastern media to show how naive Western preconceptions about secularism and democracy downplayed the significance of the Iranian Islamic Revolution.  When events were unfolding, the Ayatollah Khomeni was considered in the west just to be a Muslim Holy Man as opposed to the catalyst for an Islamic Revolution.

Iranium details the revolutionary aspects of the Iranian Republic are clearly embedded within the new Iranian Constitution.  The revolutionary fervor was bolstered by paramilitaries who independently instigated the Iranian Hostage crisis.  The Iranian regime also established the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who became the bulwark of the radical government and one of the most powerful institutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

By piecing together interviews with right thinking scholars, Iranium illustrates how the Iranian government has been covertly engaging in war since its inception, particularly through proxy fights in the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing, the army compound bombing in Beirut in 1984, the Khobar Tower bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, supporting the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, as well as aiding insurgents in Iraq.

The second half of the film focuses on the Iranian nuclear program.  Iranium uses history to show how the aftermath of the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s combined with the ascension of the brutal Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei led it on the path to seek nuclear weapons as another front to spread the Islamic Revolution and perhaps Persian power throughout the world. The film makes the connections with the Axis of Evil, showing how Iran followed North Korea’s lessons in burying the covert military oriented labs underground.  Iranium also makes the connection with how Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan helped proliferate much of the nuclear technical know how.

Perhaps for the general audience the prolonged chronological history was necessary. But since many of the scholars from the Center for Security Policy and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy that were interviewed for the film were familiar to foreign policy wonks like me, the history seemed more extensive than necessary.  I was hoping for more concentration of the Iranian nuclear program and the pusillaniousness of Western powers to respond to a clear and immanent threat.

Although  the narrative of the film was thorough and cohesive, some of the cinematic quality of Iranium did not present well on the big screen.  The American news footage which was used in Iranium looked fuzzy, particularly for President Reagan’s inauguration. But it was not confined to archival footage.  Some of the coverage from five years ago had video distortion while other sources (like CNN) had no flaws. Oddly, the Mid-Eastern news sources did not have these quality challenges.  This made me wonder if the filmmakers had difficulty procuring rights to rebroadcast, but director Trainmen attributes the problem to rushing to circulate the film.   Perhaps the video quality will appear less jarring on a smaller screen.

Iranium generated some controversy during its roll out.  A showing at the Library and Archives of Canada was cancelled on January 18th 2011 after protests from the Iranian government.  But Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore insisted that "The Iranian Embassy will not dictate to the Government of Canada which films will or will not be shown in Canada,” and the film was shown a fortnight later.   A reviewer in  The Vancouver Sun  opined "It would be tempting to dismiss as a right-wing fantasy if only someone hadn't gone to such steps to keep it from being shown."

Ironically, as I was attending the screenings, there were premature reports that Egyptian strongman President Hosni Mubarak had ceded power. I thought about the chaos and American ambivalence to the Iranian Revolution and made me wonder if history could be repeating itself.

Iranium was about the right length for a policy oriented documentary.  It did convey a convincing point of view.  It is well worth watching.  

To get the message out, the producers of Iranium are allowing people to watch the film while streaming online.  Carpe diem.

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