This past week we had the opportunity to see two impressive movies based on true events. Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden finally culminating in his death by a night raid by Seal Team Six. Argo looks back at the events of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and focuses solely on the clandestine rescue mission of six American diplomats holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s home. Apart from cinematic brilliance (ZDT was definitely better in this regard to Argo), both attempt to recreate events from our recent past. Chances are that people involved in both missions are still alive and can attest to the veracity of the events as told.
Among the two, Zero Dark Thirty has faced charges of twisting the truth by implying that torture played a big part in unearthing Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Some, including the filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, have tried to defend it on the strawman-esque grounds it does not approve of torture. Huh? No one has even raised that issue and we couldn’t care if you did or not. The real debate has been focused on whether torture as depicted was as instrumental in capturing Bin Laden. Everyone in the know, ranging from the CIA Director and Senators on the Intelligence Committee to undisclosed CIA agents have contested this depiction. Conservatives like Liz Cheney and Sean Hannity have praised the movie since it reinforces their ideological belief that torture works.
One may argue that filmmakers enjoy a certain right to exercise what most call, an artistic license to interpret historical events for dramatic effect. But does a still-classified mission as recent as two years ago on the most sought-after man on the planet get this right? Sure. But not when the filmmaker tries to pass it off as journalism as Kathryn Bigelow and the screenwriter, Michael Boal have often claimed to do. While you can dramatize events even if they are based on real life, it smacks of dishonesty if you change the narrative and alter significant aspects of the tale that defined it. If you say that torture was only one of the things that worked then you do not get that impression in the movie. [SPOILER ALERT! If you can call it that] One of the key twists after they have identified the courier that led the CIA to Abbottabad was uncovering his real name. The way that happened in the movie is quite casual. It happens in a partly water cooler talk when a fellow agent hands it to the protagonist and says she found it during her search of the archives. Did Bigelow just toss in the biggest development of the search casually? Maybe yes because that part of actually linking together pieces and doing actual detective work is painstakingly slow and dull; not something you can show in a war-like movie .
Argo is not without aspects that may cast doubt on events as they happened. In my opinion, the dramatic finale may have been stretched a little for tension. However, the point where it departs from Zero Dark Thirty’s narrative is that, the dramatization doesn’t stretch the underlying truth that a CIA agent managed to smuggle six Americans from under the Iranian government noses. Argo may have underplayed the Canadian government’s role, as they have complained, but it still doesn’t deny their role and certainly doesn’t add elements that link action A to result B. These differences are important because movies play an outsized role in shaping our memories and even history. People tend to remember events as shown in movies rather than written in dense non-fiction books. If a filmmaker chooses to deliberately twist facts, at least we should have a debate on why she chose to do that and if nothing, deny them the ‘journalism’ tag. I was disappointed since Kathryn Bigelow is better than that. Matt Taibbi sums it up perfectly.
This debate has naturally affected Zero Dark Thirty’s chances at the award ceremonies as it was excluded in the ever-important Best Director’s role (she deserved to be nominated at least, in my opinion) and apart from rightly honoring Jessica Chastain, it lost to Argo in the coveted Best Movie category at the Golden Globes.
- Unless Sorkin is writing it [↩]