The Argo Effect

02/21/2013 01:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2013

The Academy Awards are this coming weekend, and based on its mad march through the rest of the award shows this season, it sure looks like Argo is well positioned to take the Best Picture prize even as its helmer, the resurgent Ben Affleck was perplexingly robbed of a nom for Best Director. I greatly enjoyed the movie when I saw it last fall, and enjoyed it again after watching it earlier this week on home vid. However, the question that arises whenever a film like this, ostensibly based on true events, hits the public sphere is exactly how true "true" is, and how much license should we allow creative-types to, well, create.

A little bit of research last fall made clear to me that while the filmmaking team took great pains to make sure Argo preserved the spirit of the times (both in terms of the content of the film and how it's presented stylistically), it also employs a fair amount of dramatic license to up the stakes as we watch CIA agent Affleck attempt a down-to-the-wire rescue of six American diplomats from Iran during the '79-'80 hostage crisis, aided by the the game efforts of stateside boss Bryan Cranston. Nonetheless, in a funhouse mirror of its closing moments, as the film closes in on the promised land of Oscar gold, there are renewed questions whether its spinning of history makes it worth the many accolades it's garnered.

In a piece for Salon forcefully titled, "Argo doesn't deserve an Oscar," Andrew O'Hehir rattles off the litany of ways in which the film sidesteps historical fact in favor of cinematic fiction, many of which I knew, some of which I didn't. Says he:

...I'm less concerned with the veracity of individual details than with the fact that Argo uses its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological. It's a totalizing fiction whose turning points are narrow escapes and individual derring-do designed to foreground Affleck and his star power (instead of the long, grinding work of Canadian-American collaboration behind the scenes that made the real rescue possible), an adventure yarn whose twists raise your pulse rate but keep the happy ending clearly in view.

I see where O'Hehir is coming from, but where I disagree strongly is the sentiment he expresses that the film is somehow rendered "lesser" because of its deviations from what actually happened.

Now, given that we live in a world governed by the propagandistic pull of celluloid dreams, where the public tends to prefer the reel to the real, I have no doubt that the fictionalized adventures story built on the wireframe of true events will eventually harden into truth for the overwhelming majority of those who end up seeing it for time immemorial. And thus, the concerns of former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor that his role in the narrative (as played by Victor Garber) has been downgraded from that of a key participant to "opening and closing a door," are indeed valid (and for another look at the reality underlying Argo's fiction, read this piece by Mark Lijek, one of the six).

But even with the contrarian arguments from those who lived through these experiences and are saying, "It didn't happen that way," the question still arises as to where Hollywood's responsibility ends and the public's begins when it comes to accurately depicting and recalling actual events. Who does that onus fall on? This is where things start getting slightly murkier. While you'd think most people would have the ability to contextualize a fictionalized narrative while seeking out its factual roots, far too often the tendency is to let the filmic representation subsume the lived reality and content the audience with the cinematic substitute.

When it comes to the dichotomy between the real and the reel, to paraphrase and juxtapose a comment by the title character of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the job of filmmakers is to arrive at truth, not fact. If you're looking for facts, there are plenty of encyclopedias and newspapers ready for your perusal. Film is an artifact of interpretation, and sometimes truth is apparent even when facts aren't. I'd say on that level, by highlighting the Iranian unrest of the era, by going to great pains to contextualize it in terms of the recent and ancient history that led to that moment, and reflecting the mood of the time, Argo succeeds marvelously. Maybe that's not the ideal, but maybe it is enough.