History Was Made to Be Rewritten

From GWTW to Argo to Hamilton, fact is often secondary to fiction.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton (Photo: Disney Plus)

If actors can talk politics, there’s no reason politicians can’t weigh in on films. Right? Some might even offer insight deeper than calling Meryl Streep “overrated,” as Donald Trump did several years back. Take former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who, in a 2012 interview with Piers Morgan, dropped some juicy inside info about the movie Argo.

First off, he loved it and despite controversy over its inaccuracies, he was rooting for it to win “Best Film” at the Oscars, which happened several days after the interview. (It did end up winning Best Picture.) Still, he wanted to clarify something: Canada deserved far more credit (90 percent) than the movie gave it, as did a man named Ken Taylor, a Canadian ambassador whom the President called the “main hero” and lauded for having “orchestrated the entire process” in which six U.S. diplomats were rescued from Tehran, Iran, during the early days of the 1979–81 Iran hostage crisis.

So where did that leave CIA agent Tony Mendez, the central character played by Ben Affleck? According to President Carter, whose term in office was largely defined by the crisis, Mendez was in Tehran for only one and a half days.

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Ben Affleck and the Ayatollah Khomeini in Argo (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

President Carter didn’t say exactly what Mendez did while he was in Tehran (it was significant enough to score him 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 diplomats trapped in Iran and not pulling off the faux Hollywood film that was the crux of the escape plan onscreen.

I still have a hard time buying that sequence of events, but does it even matter? Do inaccuracies compromise the value of a movie intended to be as much entertainment as history lesson? Recently, the country debated whether the liberties Gone with the Wind takes in depicting Black life during slavery times make it deserving of cancellation. It’s certainly not the first movie to be set in that era to tweak reality, but in a movie like Harriet’s favor, for all its historical misses, the 2019 Harriet Tubman biopic, unlike GWTW, got the brutality of 19th century racism right.

But then, did Bohemian Rhapsody have to nail Freddie Mercury’s sex life or the chronology of events in the rise of Queen? Did Bombshell and Mrs. America need disclaimers similar to the “occasionally true story” one Hulu’s The Great recently used to distinguish 100 percent factual from partly to largely fictional?

Without one, does entertainment that massages history have to veer so outrageously off historic course, as 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did with the Manson Family’s Tate murders of 1969, or add music and an anachronistically multicultural cast, like the now-iconic Broadway musical Hamilton, to prevent viewers from mistaking it for nothing but the truth?

I’m not sure Argo’s inaccuracies would have been more acceptable to its detractors if Affleck had stuck a “very loosely based on factual events” disclaimer on the end of it. That always should be implied anyway.

This is not to say that all fictionalized history is innocuous. The stakes are much higher for a film like Gone with the Wind, whose narrative liberties reflect the systemic racism it sweeps under the rug, than it is for The Great. That doesn’t justify cancelling GWTW, but it makes it worthy of deeper discussion.

Ultimately, though, viewers should be approaching history-based movies with caution and common sense. 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 once had a conversation with a 19-year-old university student who said he’d rocked an exam on Anna Karenina after watching the 2012 film based on it and skipping the book. Lucky him, but Hollywood has a worse track record with literature than with history. How else could we get two movies based on both Henry James’s Washington Square and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and completely different endings for each pair?

In 2012, Meryl Streep scored a third Oscar 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 were hidden cameras in Thatcher’s bedroom.

OUATIH notwithstanding, Hollywood endings for history-based dramas are, at the very least, typically consistent with the truth. In Argo, the American diplomats escaped, just as in real life. It’s the stuff that comes before “The End” that’s often fanciful and fabricated. In 2012, Meryl Streep scored a third Oscar 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 were hidden cameras in Thatcher’s bedroom.

And I’m fairly certain the 13th Amendment vote in Lincoln, which lost the Best Picture Oscar to Argo, was not particularly nail-biting. But what would have been the entertainment value in a too-realistic recreation of the legislative process in the House of Representatives circa 1865?

Or consider The Impossible, another 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 as much as 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.

After watching Argo for the first time back in 2011, 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 the 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 tend to be more faithful to factual, so maybe we should save our suspension of disbelief for them. Better yet, reading will never go out of style.

If a college student is reckless enough to skip classes and take an essay exam on the Iranian hostage crisis or Alexander Hamilton’s life after watching Argo or Hamilton, respectively, they’ve earned their likely failing grades. But I bet they’d still enjoy the movies.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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