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From the Wire: Debate Over Its Inaccuracies Keeps ‘Argo’-ing

From the Wire: Debate Over Its Inaccuracies Keeps 'Argo'-ing

I had a feeling someone would disagree with my assertion that a historical movie like Argo was not only entitled to its inaccuracies, it was actually enhanced by them. I was right. Earlier this week at Slate, Forrest Wickman wrote an interesting response to my original article entitled “Why ‘Argo”s Inaccuracies Matter.” In his eyes, “Argo” isn’t nearly as “epistemologically savvy” as I claimed. Wickman says the movie is a decent suspense ride and nothing more, in part because of its “thematic incoherence when it comes to balancing fact and fiction:”

“Consider the closing credits sequence. [director Ben] Affleck shows us stills of several of the movie’s key characters and scenes, as they were posed for the film, beside the real-life people and events they were based on. The images are near carbon copies — right down to the monster lenses of the film’s old-fashioned eyeglasses — and together they send a clear message: The real-life events really were just like what you saw here. In fact they were nearly identical.

“Except, of course, that they weren’t — the similarities highlighted in these photographs are entirely superficial, and each pair of images was chosen very selectively to highlight those similarities. If the film meant to make a point of its own fudging, as in the more interesting movie that Singer suggests, then it might also have shown all the events and characters that were pure invention. It might have positioned fictional producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin’s character), for example, next to the real-life hero or heroes he was very loosely based on (such as makeup man Robert Sidell, the actual co-producer, who is not mentioned in the film). A more openly artificial movie might have brought back the final plane vs. car chase from the film, noting with a gotcha! that the actual escape was “smooth as silk.”

I will concede that as I initially watched the closing credits unfold, I was disappointed: comparing the authenticity of the real life participants to the actors who played them felt incompatible with the tone of a paean to the glory of movies. But the more I thought about “Argo” and its pro-cinema agenda, the more I began to see those credits as the equivalent of a theatrical curtain call. 

“Argo”‘s story shows what can be accomplished by a well-functioning team like CIA agent Tony Mendez and the Iranian hostages, and could be a read as a metaphorical celebration of the accomplishments of all the people who work to make the movies we love. Like Mendez, who didn’t publicly receive recognition for his efforts in Iran for decades, the movies are filled with technicians whose skills and achievements are left almost entirely out of the spotlight. In a sense, the closing credits snapshots do more than allow us to believe what we’ve just seen is what really happened — they give us a moment to celebrate the remarkable technical skill of the costumers, makeup designers, hairdressers, and casting directors who found these actors and made them look so astonishingly like their historical counterparts.

Digging further into Wickman’s piece, I think he might have slightly misread my argument (or, perhaps, I miswrote it the first time around). I don’t like “Argo” for being a movie that “makes a point of its own fudging,” I like its sneaky fudging of history into wildly entertaining fiction. In my piece I compared the art of moviemaking in general — and “Argo”‘s climactic chase through the airport in particular — to a magician’s sleight of hand act. “Argo” doesn’t make a point of its own fudging; it tricks us into believing and enjoying its rather cinematic interpretation of events.

The finale of “Argo” represents the triumph of movies on multiple levels. In the historical account, disguising themselves as a film crew enabled the American hostages to slip out of Iran undetected. In Affleck’s version, the relative ease of their escape is transformed into an epic white-knuckle thriller. The “Argo” that Wickman describes would look more like Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” — where the magician deconstructs the magic trick as he performs it. That’s an entirely different thing. “Argo” is about an emotional experience, not an intellectual exercise.

Wickman sees Affleck positioning “‘Argo,’ somewhat disingenuously, as the real behind-the-headlines story of the rescue’s unsung heroes,” and to support that claim he examines one other element of the movie’s allegedly problematic ending in his article. The first wave of “Argo”‘s closing title cards about the fates of Mendez and the hostages are superimposed over images of toys in Mendez’s son’s bedroom. “By choosing to celebrate ‘Argo”s secret heroes over the image of these action figures,” Wickman says, “Affleck highlights how real heroes are not at all like the ones you usually see in the movies — and it’s the real ones, not the plastic ones, that he means to pay tribute to.”

Perhaps. But Wickman leaves out one crucial detail about this sequence. Just before the final fade to black, after Affleck’s camera scans past rows of plastic Han Solos and Doctor Zaiuses, it comes to settle on a storyboard, the only one left from the CIA’s “Argo” cover story, sitting amidst the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” and “Planet of the Apes” action figures. Wickman’s reading of that scene is certainly viable — but that storyboard suggests an alternate interpretation I prefer.

There’s something very tender and admiring about the way Affleck’s camera looks at those shelves of toys; it’s easy to imagine that Affleck himself, who turned five the year “Star Wars” came out, had and adored some just like them in his own childhood bedroom. The “Argo” storyboard displayed proudly beside these other cherished icons of fantasy implies we should hold the movie in similar regard: as a testament to the power of dreams, imagination — and, above all, of movies — to change the world for the better, both on and offscreen.

Read more of “Why ‘Argo”s Inaccuracies Matter.”

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