JEFF SYBERTZ ’13
This past Sunday, the 85th Annual Academy Awards took place amidst the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood. Some of the biggest winners of the night included films that were based on historical events, such as “Argo,” “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” These films either detail actual historical events or portray a particular time in history. Due to these portrayals of controversial times or events in our history, these films have come under heat from both film critics and American politicians, despite their commercial successes. These experts have criticized the films for historical inaccuracies, over-dramatizations, an obsession with assigning a hero to every major event, and a desire to sacrifice the truth in order to reap a larger profit. Although the directors and writers have the right to artistic expression in their portrayal of these events, they also have the responsibility to maintain some semblance of the truth.
Considering the amount of influence these filmmakers have over the masses, they often have the power to bring previously unknown or rarely discussed political and historical events into the public eye. It can be potentially dangerous to bring these issues to light without showing the whole truth.
One of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed films of the past year was Argo. This political thriller details the true story of an outlandish CIA plot to save six American hostages after Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
The plot involved the filming of a fake science fiction movie in the Iranian desert in the hopes of smuggling the six hostages out of the country. Although the film is based on a true story and details the heroic actions of CIA Agent Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck), it gives too much of the credit for the operation to Mendez and the American CIA. In reality, Mendez and the Americans played a minor role in saving hostages.
The Canadians, especially the Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor, were the true heroes of this event. The six American citizens were able to escape from the Embassy before the Iranian occupation and found safe haven in Taylor’s personal residence. For months Taylor and his family risked their lives to ensure the safety of these Americans while Canadian and American officials navigated the political red tape to form an extraction plan. Moreover, the Canadian government took a huge political risk by issuing six fake passports to these American citizens and risked international condemnation if the plan backfired.
Granted, this operation was more than 30 years ago and was declassified in the 1990s so the public has access to the true story. However, the only reason most people know of this heroic and unprecedented operation is because of the film. Instead of properly recognizing the contributions of Taylor and the Canadian government, Hollywood would rather credit the individual actions of a CIA agent. Since a patriotic American spy is a more intriguing protagonist than a 60-year-old Canadian foreign official, profit gave the credit to the wrong hero.
“Lincoln” is another blockbuster that is expected to perform well at the Academy Awards that has received some flak for historical inaccuracies. Unlike “Argo,” which focuses on one particular event, “Lincoln” details the life and presidency of our 16th president. While “Argo” could be considered a political thriller, there is no doubt that Lincoln is a work of historical fiction. Yet certain events are dramatized or blatantly inaccurate to enhance the narrative and give more credit to Lincoln for the Northern accomplishments during and after the Civil War.
For example, in one scene, two Conn. politicians vote against the 13th Amendment. This scene adds extra drama to the film and details how difficult it was for Lincoln to gain consensus over the issue of slavery within his own party. There is only one problem: these two Conn. politicians actually voted in favor of the 13th Amendment.
Once again, this historical inaccuracy does not appear to be a major crime against humanity because it is one minor detail in an event that took place nearly 150 years ago. Nonetheless, this film has been acclaimed for its educational capacities and will be given to middle schools and high schools around the world. If it is receiving such praise for its educational capacity, shouldn’t it be historically accurate?
The most successful and controversial film of this Oscar season is “Zero Dark Thirty.” This film details the manhunt, capture, and murder of Osama Bin Laden by an American SEAL team in 2011. Unlike the other two films, Zero Dark Thirty portrays an incredibly recent political event that is part of the larger War on Terror, which is still going on to this day.
The murder of Bin Laden was not a covert CIA operation or a biopic of a president from the 19th century. It was arguably the most important political event in US history since September 11 and we are still living with its consequences. There is a real political and cultural importance to how people perceive this movie. Most of the American public view the raid on the Pakistani compound as an incredible political and military achievement and regard the mission as a success, regardless of the methods used to acquire information and the international laws violated to capture Bin Laden.
This movie details the extensive use of torture to acquire intelligence about Bin Laden’s whereabouts and, similar to “Argo,” places a large amount of credit for the mission on the shoulders of one heroic CIA agent. Although Director Kathryn Bigelow attempts to show that even the greatest political accomplishments present complicated moral dilemmas, it intuitively implies that torture was essential to the operation and can produce immediate results. Obviously, torture was extensively used to capture Bin Laden, but Bigelow also has the responsibility to show the countless instances in which the American torture and illegal detention of civilians did not produce significant results. Moreover, the movie gives virtually all of the credit for the operation to a lone CIA agent and ignores the contributions of the many of the other individuals and agencies involved. Bigelow’s goal is not to encourage the use of torture but many of her viewers will inherently make the connection between torture and progress. If Hollywood convinces people that torture is legitimate, it can potentially allow the US government more leeway in their pursuit of terrorists.
Even though these films are only based on true stories and have no legal obligation to accurately portray every aspect of each event, there should be some limits on artistic license when dealing with such controversial episodes in our history. Blockbuster films are incredibly influential in modern day America. These films are entertaining, thought provoking, and can often reveal things that the “official story” often conceals. However, we, as consumers, and the filmmakers, as storytellers, have certain responsibilities.
We must realize that although they are based on true stories, these films are still fiction and must not accept the portrayals as historical fact. Fulfilling this responsibility is virtually impossible. However, the filmmakers’ responsibility of maintaining some semblance of truth in their works is not only impossible, it is their duty. If they do not fulfill their obligation, they risk misinforming millions about issues as important as torture and the American role in the world.