Sunday, March 24, 2013

Does Hollywood Owe It to Us to Get All of Its Historical Facts Straight?

My brother just emailed me a video of an interview that Piers Morgan recently did with Jimmy Carter in which the former U.S. President, looking fantastic to be pushing 90, made some interesting points about the film Argo and the real life story on which it's apparently quite loosely based.

Carter loved the movie and was rooting for it to win "Best Film" at the Oscars, but he wanted to clarify a few important things: The Canadians deserved far more credit (90%) than the movie gave them, as did a man named Ken Taylor, a Canadian ambassador whom Carter called the "main hero" and lauded for having "orchestrated the entire process." So where did that leave CIA agent Tony Mendez, the central character played by Ben Affleck? According to Carter, Mendez was only in Tehran for one and a half days.

Carter didn't say exactly what Mendez did while he was in Tehran (whatever it was, it was significant enough to warrant an Intelligence Star from the CIA), and it's unclear what he meant by "orchestrated the entire process." My impression is that he was talking about securing fake Canadian passports for the Americans trapped in Iran -- so pivotal to pulling off the entire scheme -- and not the fake Hollywood movie that was the crux of the film and also essential to the success of the plan.

And how much does it matter anyway? This is, after all, Hollywood, not a social studies classroom. Watching any movie based on history and expecting to get the real story is like reading the Cliff Notes for any great American novel and expecting to ace an essay test on it afterwards.

I recently had a conversation with a 19-year-old university student who said he rocked an exam on Anna Karenina after watching the 2012 film based on it and skipping the book. Good for him, but he's a lucky one. Hollywood has been playing loose with history and literature for decades. How else could we get two movies based on Henry James's Washington Square and Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and get two completely different endings for each pair?

Last year, Meryl Streep won a Best Actress Oscar and tons of acclaim for playing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a movie (The Iron Lady) that had to be at least one-half inaccurate unless there are hidden cameras in Thatcher's bedroom. And I'm fairly certain that the 13th Amendment vote in Lincoln was not quite the nail-biting moment that the movie made it out to be. But what would have been the entertainment value in a too-realistic recreation of the legislative process in the House of Representatives circa 1865?

Could anyone involved in the making of Lincoln possibly have known what went on in the Lincolns' bedroom during their arguments? Did Honest Abe really smack his son Robert in public? Did he have that conversation with his wife's dressmaker?

Or consider The Impossible, another recent Oscar nominee that was based on factual events (the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Southeast Asia). After the tsunami, much of the drama hinges on coincidences that couldn't possibly have occurred, but it's still a good movie with excellent performances in it.

Yes, overstating the contribution of a central character rewrites history more than fabricating conversations and coincidences, but it's not as if Ben Affleck left Canada out of Argo completely. Victor Garber's Ken Taylor was a key supporting character in the film, and I, for one, was aware of Canada's contribution -- though possibly not the full extent of it -- at the end of the movie. By the time, the credits were rolling, I was hailing Canada for reasons that had nothing to do with its music. Would Argo's inaccuracies be more acceptable to its detractors if Affleck had stuck a "loosely based on factual events" disclaimer on the end of it. By now, shouldn't that always be implied?

I was under no mistaken impression that what I'd just seen was exactly how events played out. No way did this happen, I thought to myself while watching Argo's climactic airport scene, but I still found it thoroughly riveting. Without it, I might not have appreciated the film nearly as much as I did, so kudos to Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio for making it up and securing Argo's Best Picture Oscar.

At the end of the day, and of movies, we watch them to be moved and entertained. Well-made documentaries do a good enough job of keeping us informed (and if they're really good, entertained as well, though for completely different reasons). If my teenage acquaintance were reckless enough to take an essay exam on the Iranian hostage crisis after watching Argo and skipping an actual history lesson, he'd deserve his failing grade. But I bet he'd still enjoy the movie.
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