Argo: Essentially not a true story

A movie can't be a true story if much of the content is fictionalised. Afflect wanted to have his cake and eat it...

Noman Ansari March 01, 2013
Having already won accolades at the three major American film industry guild awards, the Golden Globes, as well as at the British Academy Film Awards, it wasn’t surprising that Ben Affleck’s Argo took home the top prize for Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards.

But although it wasn’t unpredicted, it was quite a bit disappointing, especially for fans of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Personally, I had been hoping for an upset in favour of Ang Lee’s film, especially after he had earned the naked golden statue for Best Director earlier that night for his enchanting cinematic adaption of the Yann Martel’s fantasy/adventure novel.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Argo is a terrible film. In fact, it is a skilfully made thriller that is fantastic at building nerve wracking suspense. My issue with the Argo is how freely it exaggerates the events of the Iran hostage crisis in order to make itself more engaging.

As I noted in my review;
“To achieve this [pressure cooker situation], Argo also forgoes historical accuracy, and should be taken as a dramatization of real events for pure entertainment value.”

Had Argo been a pure play by play of the whole rescue, it would have been a dull film, because the truth is that the hostage rescue it portrays wasn’t very eventful.

Please note you are now entering spoiler territory. The following are some of the exaggerations that Argo makes for dramatic effect:

1. When the historic rescue happened, the world believed that the entire plan was executed by the Canadian government, which wasn’t completely true. But Ben Affleck goes so far in the other direction, that the poor Canadians in Argo quite unduly take a complete backseat role. Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, the Canadian people have skills aside from ice-hockey and beer chugging.

As former president Jimmy Carter later observed,
“90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan were Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA. And with that exception, the movie is very good. But Ben Affleck’s character in the film was... only in Tehran a day and a half. And the main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”

Meanwhile, the film at one point shows that Ken Taylor threatens to close the Canadian embassy, which of course never happened. It was clearly another piece of exaggeration for dramatic effect.

2. Halfway through the film, the American group is out and about in a local marketplace pretending to be a film crew. Here, a very tense scene takes place, where their lives in the bazaar appear to be in peril. None of this actually happened, of course.

3. While in reality, the group’s tickets to Zurich were purchased in advance by the Canadian ambassador’s wife, the film shows a different truth for dramatic effect. It is another case of Argo creating drama when there was none and inadvertently downplaying the role of the Canadian government. (And Americans wonder why the Canadians aren’t always very fond of their neighbours.)

4. When the group is finally exiting Iran, they face a very jittery encounter with the boarding officials at the airport. It is an excellent scene that displays how the love of cinema knows no borders, yet it was another piece that was completely invented.

5. When the group is finally on the plane, and very close to tasting freedom, they are chased by the Iranian military that is ready to shoot their aircraft down. As you may have suspected from the formulaic nature of this rather annoying finale, it was also another segment in the film that was entirely fabricated.

In fact, here is what Mark Lijek, one of the six actual people rescued during the operation, had to say,
“The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador’s residence in Berne. It was that straightforward.”

6. What about producer Lester Siegel, the best character in the film, and the reason why Hollywood embraced Argo as a love letter to the industry? Not only was the role of Hollywood in the Argo mission largely embellished, but Lester Siegel is a completely fictitious character.

So, the question is that if Argo fictionalises events so heavily, why did Ben Affleck base a film on a real hostage rescue at all? Why not make the entire premise fictional?

The reason is that had Argo not been ‘based’ on a real event, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. When the opening segment of Argo positions the film as authentic, we, the audience, naturally find the following events all the more compelling. Clearly, Ben Affleck used the truth as much as it could to serve him, wanting to have his cake and eat it too.

In Argo, he uses the illusion of authenticity to power the drama, yet the film is only authentic when it serves Ben Affleck.

While these flaws are also what make Argo such a watchable film, they are still flaws regardless. The film does trick the audience into accepting its authenticity and even if the process works for entertainment value, surely the best film of the year must be held to higher standards.

The question is where would have Argo stood, had it not been based on a historically documented event? Would Argo have been just another by-the-numbers spy film?

Many years ago, Denzel Washington was snubbed for the Best Actor award. It was his performance of a lifetime in the film, The Hurricane (1999), and a role for which he richly deserved the Oscar, but was sadly left empty handed.

The reason for the snub was because the film, centered on the racist persecution of an African America boxer, had exaggerated actual events for dramatic effect, which had eventually rubbed the Academy the wrong way. I suppose the lesson here is that exaggeration is only acceptable to the Academy, when it is Hollywood that is looking good, as in the case of Argo.

On a side note, I was intensely disappointed with Pixar’s average effort, Brave, winning the Best Animated Feature award. Anyone who has seen Tim Burton’s stop-motion masterpiece, Frankenweenie, knows it was the best animated film of the year. And as the entertainment website IGN noted, when it comes to this particular category, the academy probably doesn’t even bother viewing all the films!

Read more by Noman here or follow him on Twitter @Pugnate
Noman Ansari The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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