A Hero, a tense, mazy drama from the Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, centers on a figure familiar to anyone who’s attuned to the ebbs and flows of internet celebrity: the social media Main Character, the subject of an internet backlash. Rahim (Amir Jadidi, endearing yet inscrutable), is a man imprisoned for debts in the desert city of Shiraz, who becomes a local hero for an act of charity of ambiguous motivation. His girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoust), gevind 17 gold coins who she says were left in a purse at a bus stop, but instead of paying toward his freedom, Rahim contacts a bank and arranges a return to their owner. Within days, on furlough from jail, he’s the feelgood story of the moment.
I’ve written before about how there are few films which successfully capture the internet and/or social media without tipping into flat moralism, obsolescence or laughable facsimiles. (Social media and the internet are of course not the same thing, though in today’s climate of platform consolidation, to refer to one is basically to refer to the other, especially in the context of film and television.) This is partly because text phrasing, online references and digital interfaces change so quickly – at a much faster pace than the production of a film, let alone its distribution – that including it in text messages or social media references can jarringly distract from the story at hand; timestamped phone and computer screen risk locking the story into a tight, hyper-specific timeline that can constrain narrative, filming location or cultural references.
The few good internet films convey genuine human emotion through depictions of phone-lit characters consumed by the infinite scroll (Eighth Grade, Sweat, Ingrid Goes West) or confined to movement within a desktop (the so-called “screen-life” films produced by Timur Bekmambetov – Profile, Searching and Unfriended – and the 2020 movie Spree). A Hero, available to stream on Amazon, is a rare exception to both of these trends. The two-hour feature is one of the sharpest films about how the online influences our postures off it, evoking a real-time turn of the timeline’s tide, while barely engaging with the internet itself.
Farhadi rarely shows a screen, but you can feel the churn of the internet behind Rahim’s rapid celebrity, recorded in heartwarming newspaper articles arranged by his prison, mentions of things seen on social media, and an award from a local charity that collects donations to pay off his debt. And as with anything popular online, there are quickly detractors and doubters. A fellow inmate praises Rahim’s ability to fool everyone with icy contempt. A hiring manager pokes holes in Rahim’s story that he struggles to plug up with evidence. Did he and Farkhondeh really just find gold coins? Who was the skittish woman who collected them, nowhere to be found?
Rahim is handsome and ingratiating, a natural charmer, but how much do we trust his story as more reports of his unreliability surface? “I didn’t lie,” he tells his sister Malileh (Maryam Shahdaei), when the deluge of bad optics begins to erase his good fortune. “But you didn’t tell the truth,” she retorts. In Farhadi’s film, as it can be online, both are simultaneously correct and unmoored, swimming in conflicting takes, narratives and hidden motivations.
Characters need only reference things seen on social media or “what people are saying” for audiences to fill in the virtual background. The kind of celebratory online attention that Rahim has received and then reaped tends to be corrosive; very, very few things on the internet age well, especially if it goes viral. Popularity engenders backlash, which platforms then amplify. Main characters are revealed to have complicated, maybe unsavory backstories. Pile-ons careen out of control, context or scope. (To cite two prominent examples from just the past two weeks on US social media: the furor over West Elm Caleb en die curdling of Wordle fandom.) Anyone interested in maintaining their two days of fame or parlaying it into something else must participate in an increasingly hollow and cringey game of self-promotion, one even influencers themselves – the ones who make actual money off of producing content on big platforms – appear exhausted with.
One can imagine smaller versions of this happening simultaneous to the action in A Hero, which mostly sticks to Rahim’s confused, soured IRL perspective. It’s there in the way charity officials titter about returning their donations, caught in the difficult position of backing a controversy. It’s implied when the daughter of Rahim’s creditor, Nazanin (Sarina Farhadi), whose dowry was spent to cover Rahim’s loans, takes out a phone to film a physical altercation. It haunts scheming by Rahim, Malileh and brother-in-law Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh) to restore Rahim’s reputation. It frames concerns of “authenticity” in the filming of Rahim’s innocent, scared son Siavash (Saleh Karimai), who has a severe speech impediment, as a ploy for sympathy.
Farhadi has traced dense thickets of ethics and motivations before, in his two Oscar-winning pictures A Separation and The Salesman, and A Hero applies the same scrupulous vision to characters besieged, directly or adjacently, by the whims of public discourse out of one’s control. When Rahim learns that an unflattering video of him, one that he fought to keep hidden, has been posted online, we do not see the comments, takes, explainers, hate messages. It’s all there on his face, which has the pall of a real death. It’s unclear what he mourns most – his reputation, his ego, any prospect of controlling the narrative, his dignity, possibly his freedom from debtor’s prison.
A Hero is one of the best films on social media by playing on what we already know, refracting familiar, repetitive dynamics into a taut psychological drama that muddies the internet’s preferred lines of good and bad. You do not have to see the explosion or know its real cause to understand the fallout. Social media waves rise and fall, crest and repeat, forgotten in a day but leaving real wreckage behind. We know that but tend to forget it – behind all of these screens are fragile, complicated humans. A Hero puts that truth first, offering a model for future internet-adjacent films to come.