Analysis: Argo and Filmmakers’ Responsibility

Even before Argo won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Hollywood’s top honor, it was already being plagued by controversy.  (Nevermind the fact that every other nominee was controversial in some way: Lincoln got easy facts wrong, Silver Linings Playbook mishandled mental illness, Beasts of the Southern Wild romanticized poverty, Zero Dark Thirty lied about torture’s effectiveness, Django Unchained was racist and used the n-word too much, Russell Crowe’s singing was horrible in Les Miserables, Life of Pi misrepresented Indians and religion, and Amour advocates assisted suicide and wasn’t even in English!)  It’s nothing unusual for films to encounter controversy, or even to court it, but the debates this year about facts and politics in film have raised questions (none of them new) about the responsibility of filmmakers to the audience.

Middle East scholar Juan Cole sums up his particular complaints about Argo in an article on his blog from today.  His is just one of many making similar arguments, and the criticisms basically boil down to discussing Argo’s facts and the context (or lack thereof) that it presents.  It’s easy to list the factual errors of Argo, and the producers of the film even acknowledged some of their falsehoods by altering the postscript to emphasize Canada’s involvement.  But the question of responsible filmmaking is an interesting and complex one, and often the deeper you look the stickier things get.

Everyone realizes that movies are not real (laying aside documentaries for this discussion).  This is clearly obvious when a ridiculous movie trailer ends with the line “Based on a True Story” and the audience laughs.  However, it’s also quite true that some moviegoers will come out of a “Based on a True Story” movie assuming that the events as presented are generally true.  I’ve never seen a study on this phenomenon but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support it.  This issue actually reached a peak a few years ago when people were worried that audiences might believe that American soldiers killed Hitler in a burning movie theater because of Inglourious Basterds.

Obviously, Quentin Tarantino never claimed that Basterds was a true story, and the very nature of the film is such that no one could mistake it for fact.  However, the question still stands: do filmmakers have a responsibility to be truthful?  The idea of artistic license is pretty well established, and I imagine most people will accept that certain amounts of truth can and should be sacrificed to ensure a better story.  In Argo, for example, (Spoiler Alert!) as the plane holding Tony Mendez and the escaped embassy workers is about to take off, it is chased down the runway by Iranian police vehicles.

This was completely fabricated for the film to add suspense.  It doesn’t even hold up to logic, as a police car could not keep up with a jet airliner taking off.  Ben Affleck himself said that he added the police cars as a way to show what was going on in the heads of the main characters, who in those final agonizing moments of waiting were most likely imagining all sorts of possible ways in which they might be stopped.  I imagine most reasonable people can agree that, while possibly over the top, this change to history is an acceptable one in order to enhance the story, and in no way damages the credibility of the movie.  Even the most rabid fans of a particular fictional book will acquiesce to minor story changes in order to adapt that particular book into a movie.  What works on the page (whether of a novel or history text) may simply not be effective on film.

Things get a little less clear the further we dive into the film, however.  Tony Mendez, the central character of the film and one of the architects of the rescue/escape is American, but the majority of the work and ideas that went into the caper were actually Canadian (90%, according to President Carter).  However, the film largely neglects the role of Canada, with the exception of the Canadian ambassador to Iran, who shelters the escaped embassy workers.  Instead, the idea for the rescue and its inception are credited almost entirely to the American CIA.  An alteration of this sort is considerably more dicey.

It would be hard for the filmmakers to argue that Canada’s role was changed in order to make a better film.  The fact that the rescue was largely Canadian does not diminish its cleverness or daring, nor would it have made the film less suspenseful.  Making the Americans the central protagonists of the story allows for Tony Mendez to become the main character, giving the film and the plot a genuine lead instead of something that feels more like a committee, but this could have been accomplished without such a radical change to the facts.  Affleck’s Mendez could just have easily worked with the Canadians instead of working with the CIA for the movie’s entirety, inflating Mendez’s role in events but leaving the general truth of the events themselves intact.  The fact that the film was partly adapted from Mendez’s book and largely targeted at American audiences doesn’t help their case.

Clearly there is some sort of line as to what’s appropriate to change in a fact-based film and what is not.  There are certain necessities for films to be entertaining and successful, and a straightforward retelling of the facts will not always meet those necessities.  However, I believe a filmmaker does have a certain responsibility, if he/she is going to claim that the movie is based on fact, to not present a lie as the truth.  Taking credit from Canada to give to the CIA smacks of pandering to American patriotism, and for me it is over the line.  The change to Argo’s postscript alleviates some of the damage, but is still somewhat lacking.  I don’t need a protagonist to be from my country in order to empathize with them, nor, do I feel, should anyone else.  I imagine I would have enjoyed the film just as much had this aspect been reimagined.

All things considered, though, these two examples are mostly harmless.  It’s true, some moviegoers came out of Argo convinced that the CIA did it all alone, which is grossly unfair to Canada, but in the end that misconception is likely to do very little harm.  A more troubling example is the controversy over the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty (which I have admittedly not seen).  That film has been called out for implying that torture led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, a claim that has been widely denied.  The prevailing opinion is that the torture done in an attempt to locate Bin Laden did not provide leads and in fact might have provided false information.  This is an issue, unlike the role of the Canadians in one mission in 1979-80, that could have more serious repercussions if people are misinformed.  In theory, someone could see Zero Dark Thirty, come away thinking that torture is an effective means to stop terrorism, and vote for politicians who support the use of torture.

My point thus far is that while I feel that “true story” filmmakers have a responsibility to be as truthful as possible in telling their story, it’s unreasonable to hold them to documentary standards.  Any changes to the facts do need to be justifiable, however, and their consequences examined.  Thus far, though, I’ve yet to mention the moviegoer’s responsibilities.  We, as mature, pop culture consuming members of society, have a responsibility not to take what we see at face value, whether it’s a movie or a book or a news show or some buffoon on the radio.  It’s an unfortunate fact that we are always being lied to, and we have to always be on our guard.  Even the most popular movies can have political agendas.  I know it’s ridiculous to expect people to do research before or after watching a movie, but we have the entire sum of human knowledge at our fingertips.  It’s our job to call out when we see something that isn’t true, but we also need to realize when the truth matters and when it doesn’t.  It’s probably a pipe dream to expect people to stay informed, but I truly feel that we have this responsibility, too.

I’ve still yet to get to Juan Cole’s article, which addresses the other side of the movie truth coin.  Most of Cole’s disappointment lies in the depiction of the Iranians as simply an angry mob, without explaining the context of the situation:

Although the film begins with an info-dump that explains that the US screwed over Iran by having the CIA overthrow the elected government in 1953 and then helped impose a royal dictatorship in the form of the restored shah, that part of the film is emotionally flat. It tells, it doesn’t show. It is tacked on. It does not intersect with the subsequent film in any significant way. It therefore has no emotional weight and does little to contextualize the Iranian characters (none of whose names I think we even learn).

While I agree on the surface with the point that the Iranians are not given any depth (with the possible exception of the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper), I would argue that there is no need for them to have depth in the confines of the story being told.  Simply because Affleck does not show the causes of the situation or the divisions within the Iranian people does not mean that he is stating they don’t exist.  Cole offers several suggestions on what could have been shown to “humanized the Iranian villains of the piece and made the film more complex and less like a comic book,” however I think he’s missing the point.  The Iranians are not the villains of the piece.  Argo does not in fact contain a villain to be defeated but merely a situation to be escaped.

It’s the equivalent to asking where the wave came from in The Poseidon Adventure.  It’s not important to the story being told (that of passengers whose cruise ship has capsized), and even if it might be interesting information to know it has no bearing on our characters’ plight.  It’s enough to simply know that they were hit by a wave and the boat capsized.  Yes, the “info-dump” at the beginning of Argo is vastly oversimplified, it’s sufficient for the story.  For further explanation to be of any value there would have to have been another hour tacked on to the beginning of the film, ruining Argo’s greatest strength: its pacing.

Cole, more than anything, seems to lament the missed opportunity that Argo represents:

“Argo” could have been a moment when Americans come to terms with their Cold War role as villains in places like Iran. It could have been a film about what intelligence analysts call “blowback,” when a covert operation goes awry.

I can understand this, but I think he’s missing the point.  Argo is an intelligence thriller whose purpose is neither to educate the population on history nor to examine the politics of the era.  Its goal is to simply spin an exciting “yarn” set in a politically charged atmosphere.  I think Cole wants to see a different movie, which is not itself a bad thing.  If Argo is the original Star Wars trilogy, Cole would rather see the Prequel Trilogy.  I, for one, love the Prequel Trilogy and would be happy to watch it, but that’s not what was made.  Argo’s decision not to go into the context of the Iran hostage crisis is not the same thing as pretending the context doesn’t exist.  Just because all we know is that the mob is angry does not mean that their anger isn’t justified.

Once the embassy workers at the heart of Argo went on the run, they no longer cared about the politics, the Iranians’ motivations or intelligence “blowback”, all they were concerned with was surviving and getting home.  I don’t feel that the choice not to go into depth explaining the backstory results in “Orientalizing the Iranian protagonists as angry and irrational,” as Cole says, but merely leaves that story for someone else to tell.  I can easily see how Iranians would be upset that their side of the story wasn’t told, but I don’t feel that filmmakers have a responsibility to tell all sides of a story.  For one thing, people couldn’t sit through a movie long enough for that.

Filmmaking is an exercise in point of view, and it’s literally impossible to tell all sides and give all opinions.  Every human being has their own take on a situation, and its up to the filmmaker to select the one or ones most worth showing.  It’s always a dicey prospect dealing with multiple cultures on film, with the risk of offending or misrepresenting someone.  However, Argo’s decision not to tell the Iranian’s story is not the same thing as dismissing it or telling it incorrectly.  That story is also worth telling, it just wasn’t the one they chose.  It doesn’t excuse Argo from playing fast and loose with some of the facts, but I think it’s misguided to say or imply that Argo is racist or degrading simply for choosing not to tell all of the sides of a story.  There are many examples of cultures portrayed one-dimensionally to serve as villains, and it’s problem that should constantly be called out, I just don’t feel that it can be fairly applied to Argo.

3 thoughts on “Analysis: Argo and Filmmakers’ Responsibility

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