Argo and the Search for Historical Authenticity
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock since the Oscars, you’ve heard about the controversies surround Argo’s (lack of) historical accuracy. Whether it’s Iran threatening to sue Ben Affleck and George Clooney, Canada feeling relegated to postscript of history, or most recently the parliament in New Zealand motioning that Affleck “saw fit to mislead the world about what actually happened;” people seem to be having a hissy fit about the way in which Argo represented their countries. Even my own university newspaper saw fit to call on Canadians to not spend money on films from Hollywood that, “both demote and falsely epitomize Canada.”
Anger about historical accuracy in film is not limited to Argo. We can all recall Spike Lee’s criticism of Django Unchained for making a Spaghetti Western out of slavery. Prior to that we can go to Mel Gibson and The Patriot where one of the figures used to composite his character was described as, “a serial rapist who hunted Red Indians for fun.” Slightly more hilariously we can turn to Braveheart, where of all the inaccuracies plaguing the film, the title name of “Braveheart” was actually a nickname for Robert the Bruce, AKA one of the guys who betrayed William Wallace in the film. Cracked.com also has a long list of films loaded with historical inaccuracies here, but what is far more interesting is this sentiment (running on obsession) that people have with fiction being accurate to history and how ridiculous it is.
To start, let’s consider a question. In history, there was a real King Lear (Leir), a real Macbeth, and a real Julius Caesar. When we study Shakespeare, does it matter that ol’ Will made up about 90% of the content of those plays which were “based on history”? Perhaps this is just the opinion of one writer but the answer should clearly be no. The importance of Shakespeare is that he took familiar stories and adapted them to craft messages for his audience, as well as to entertain his audience. Art is for entertainment and the communication of a message from the author, not for the accurate portrayal of history.
Although I’ve written about this before here, we can consider a more modern case with Ridley Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven which straddled the line between message driven drama and historically inaccurate text. Whether considering the theatrical or the director’s cut, Kingdom of Heaven was written as a parable to contemporary western relations with the Middle East. Certain aspects of historical events were altered in the script to reflect this and historians wouldn’t shut up about it during the film’s release. Focusing on historical authenticity can blind us as to the beauty and power of parable in stories.
The point of all of this is that we need to stop looking at art as historical record for its content and start looking at art as historical record for the period of its production. Argo is a fascinating film in terms of historical accuracy as to what Hollywood is willing to say about America and its past at this point in time. Say we compare Kingdom of Heaven and Argo. Ridley Scott would have never been allowed (gotten funding) to make a film directly criticizing the US in Iraq in 2005 so he made a parable to get around that (kind of like Shakespeare), but Ben Affleck was able to write a scathing criticism of 50s American foreign policy and imply that it is what caused the 1979 Iranian revolution (and inadvertently the whole hostage crisis). To add to that, we can examine the film for its historical inaccuracy – such as the blatant CIA heroism and sidelining of Canada – as a way that Hollywood could allow for the initial criticism. But none of that takes away from the fact that the film is a fantastic, entertaining, and fascinating film. If the only reason you have for disliking a film is its historical authenticity, you really don’t get the point of film.
Films can be historically inaccurate and still be good films. Films can be completely historically accurate and be bad films. But what is important is that the accuracy has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the film. It’s not the filmmaker’s responsibility to satisfy your nit picking, it’s their responsibility to make good movies that we (and perhaps more importantly, they) want to watch. We have documentaries and journalism for the maintenance of historical record, leave fiction alone.