(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)
While I write about a lot things as On Violence’s resident arts commentator, I write most about inaccuracies. Distorting the truth. Changing the facts. Mostly, this has meant writing about war memoirs and films which alter the facts to improve the narrative.
Ben Affleck’s Argo changed a lot of facts.
Aesthetically, some of the changes are beneficial, like making the last act more nail-biting by increasing the sense of danger. Some of the changes are detrimental, like making Tony Mendez estranged from his wife. (In real life, this never happened.) To me, this took reality (”devoted husband and spy”) and changed it to a cliched character we’ve seen a hundred times before, “the troubled spy”.
On the most basic level, changing the facts fundamentally distorts what actually happened. Since most Americans don’t have Ph.Ds in international relations, factual errors will chronically and irreparably misinform everyone who sees Argo, the only time most Americans will read or learn about this mission.
But let’s move past facts. Art is about truth (with a capital “T”), “Truths” that explain to us the way the world works. In the same way that historians don’t memorize dates but study how and why things change, artists don’t tell stories; they reveal larger truths about the world. The real problem with changing the facts is that it can fundamentally distort the viewer’s understanding of the world. Argo changed the facts to make a better story, and lost grasp of truth in very serious and important ways.
Frankly, this is a criticism I haven’t read anywhere else. Here are three specific distortions, and the problems with them:
Other countries don’t get the credit they deserve (or: America is the bestest!) In particular, Canada and the Canadian ambassador get the shaft. From former President Jimmy Carter:
“The other thing that I would say was that 90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA...And the main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”
I have no idea why Affleck did this, except that he played the main character. This change gives American viewers the impression that we can go it alone on most things in international relations. Oh, and the CIA is incredibly, incredibly competent.
Those “mean” British and New Zealand embassies never turned away the American diplomats. The British actually briefly housed the diplomats. They moved the embassy workers to the Canadian Ambassador’s house when they felt the situation got too dangerous.
Why make the above changes? Ben Affleck wanted to make the plight of the embassy workers seem more hopeless.
Aesthetically, I guess you could defend that change. Thematically, it’s propagandistic. Affleck, probably unintentionally, makes America the hero. We view the rest of the world as cowardly and ineffective.
Michael C, editing this post, offered another equally valid interpretation: this film makes Americans feel alone in the world. We can't rely on other nations; we just need ourselves. Ironically, this seems to be what’s happening with Syria right now.
The White House didn’t delay the mission. Of all the changes in Argo, this one is the most troubling.
Americans, led by Milton Friedman, then William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater, and now Limbaugh, Hannity and the conservative media, have pushed a narrative that all government is incompetent. It can’t do anything right...except for the military and national security establishment.
Affleck plays right into this stereotype. He actively changed the reality--the Carter administration helped the CIA--to make the White House, and by extension, federal government look inept and downright harmful. In Argo, a slow-moving, behemoth bureaucracy nearly gets the six embassy workers killed. In reality, the White House approved the mission before Mendez even landed in Iran and the Canadians bought the plane tickets. In Argo, the intelligence community succeeds where the government fails. In reality, this never happened.
Americans, seeing this film, will trust the CIA and intelligence community more than they should while distrusting the government more than they should.
And that’s just not real.