For some reason conservative radio hostess Laura Ingraham is fond of James Lipton, the unctuous host of PBS’s “Actor’s Studio” interview program. He sounds off frequently on her show, usually about films, and in his most recent gig was pontificating about the Academy Awards. Lipton seems to believe that bias is a condition one is helpless to adjust for: he kept announcing his preferences for various nominees based solely on their association with him or the Actor’s Studio, and explaining his choices by saying, “I’m biased, you see.”
Recognizing bias is just half the job, James. The other half is getting over it.
While explaining his biased choice for Best Picture, Lipton was asked to explain why he thought “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s clever and harrowing film about the CIA rescue of six American Embassy workers being hidden in the Canadian Embassy during the Iranian hostage crisis, fell short. Well, Lipton explained, he was biased: he’s socialized with the heroic man who was the Canadian ambassador during the crisis (Lipton knows everyone worth knowing, of course), and thus learned that the climactic chase on the tarmac as the Americans were thaaat close to pulling an Ilsa and and Victor Laszlo to get out of Dodge never happened. This offended James, who suggested the former Canadian ambassador felt that there was no reason to hype a rescue that was already remarkable on the facts. For that reason, since Lipton is, you see, biased, he had to follow the lead of his 11,347th famous acquaintance and give “Argo” a big, fat, disqualifying black mark for flagrant historical inaccuracy.
Bias makes us stupid, and this is as good an example as any.
If “Lincoln’s” false portrayal of Connecticut’s Representatives’ votes on ratification of the 13th Amendment exemplifies a reckless and unfair distortion of facts in a historical film, “Argo’s” airport chase is the counter of example of the exercise of legitimate and harmless artistic license in pursuit of a more entertaining movie. Historical events seldom unfold in perfect dramatic form, but directors and screenwriters are obligated to present them in a fashion designed to deliver the maximum visceral wallop. Doing so without materially misleading the audience, imbedding a false historical narrative in the culture or besmirching the legacy of real people is part of that duty, and the “Argo” team balanced their obligations expertly.
The movie would have ended with a whimper if we had just seen the escaped “House guests” board the Swiss Air jet, munch their complimentary peanuts and take off from Tehran’s airport without any threat of being stopped at the last moment. Who was harmed by showing a fictional chase? Was the heroism of the participants unfairly impugned? Was any real figure unjustly credited with the deeds of another? Were the pursuing Iranians even slandered by the device, and made to appear foolish, incompetent, or excessively dangerous? Were we lied to, knowing already that the movie was not a documentary but a thriller, that the dialogue was invented, and that Victor Garber wasn’t really the Canadian Ambassador? The answers are “Nobody,” Not at all,” “Nope,” and “Don’t be silly!”
“Argo” may not be the Oscar winner, but the movie doesn’t deserve to lose any points because the film’s creative team decided to add minor fictional enhancements to its tale (which was clearly labelled as only “based on” actual events) to make the climax a bit more of a cliff-hanger than it was in real life.
That’s not unethical, that’s not unfair, and that’s not irresponsible.
No, as Jack Buchanan, Nannette Fabray, Oscar Levant and Fred Astaire once sang (James Lipton knew them, by the way!), “That’s entertainment!”
Spark: The Laura Ingram Show