The Oscar Nominee Truth Squad Goes After “Argo”


The ethics of using artistic license in films based on fact isn’t only being debated in the case of “Lincoln” as we approach the Oscar ceremonies: “Argo” is also under fire.

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

35 thoughts on “The Oscar Nominee Truth Squad Goes After “Argo”

        • I was afraid that’s what you meant. You and the other critics of the film don’t want torture to ever have advantageous intelligence results, though it is undeniable that it can have and has had, so portraying an event in which it did must have been “bending the truth.” First, director Bigelow is hardly Dick Cheney, and second, torture is no more justifiable it it works or worked than if it never worked, and those who think that showing torture as being effective weakens the ethical and moral arguments against it don’t understand either ethics or morality.

          • A movie that shows that torture is justifiable doesn’t weaken the arguments against it, but it makes it more acceptable in the minds of many who don’t want to think too hard about it. Waterboarding Khalid Shiekh Mohammed may have gotten valuable intelligence, but that success may be blown out of proportion to justify future abuses of power. It would be one thing if this was the director, a private citizen’s, point of view, but when the current administration bends over backwards to help out a filmmaker, you can’t help but think there is a little quid pro quo going on.

            • Did you watch the same movie I did? The movie doesn’t show torture is justifiable. Do you think that everything that occurs in a movie is supported as good? Did you watch Heathers and think murder was justifiable? Did you watch Catch Me If You Can and think the film maker was backing identity theft? Did you watch Jurassic Park and think Michael Crichton and Spielberg backed cloning dinosaurs? And yes, one of those was based on a true story.

              The last point is also kinda silly. The administration that helped out is anti-waterboarding. Quid pro quo would put torture in a negative light.

          • those who think that showing torture as being effective weakens the ethical and moral arguments against it don’t understand either ethics or morality.

            Despite the moral and ethical arguments against, we still have strong support of torture. Is this a case where limiting the bad arguments for torture might be a good thing?

              • You don’t want to limit the bad arguments against X, but you do want to limit the bad arguments for X. H-What? (Weird inflection intended).

                I suspect you meant that we shouldn’t censor options and that people should avoid bad arguments in favor of their position. If so, I agree.

                I also agree that “It never works” should be retired for “It’s not useful because it’s not reliable. We don’t know if it worked.” That’s actually valid.

                • My point is that the arguments against (or for, yes) torture, since the ethical objection to it is properly based on a rejection of utilitarianism where human rights violations are concerned, should not be based on invalid consequentialist logic, since it leads to exactly what we’re getting from the right, consequentialist arguments FOR torture.

                    • Sold. I do find that for people who don’t understand that, it’s helpful to point out that it also isn’t useful.

                    • But it isn’t helpful because it perpetuates the idea that it can be argued from the angle of “does torture work or not”. And since that debate is not finalized you can conclusively say it is helpful to point that out.

                      So we must be satisfied arguing against it from its inherently wrong nature and are called to work harder convincing others of that inherent ‘wrongness’.

                    • The scientific debate on the matter is finalized. Torture is not reliable. Anyone saying otherwise is tilting at windmills. When we ignore the lack of reliability topic in favor of strictly the moral argument, some people get the impression that torture works. Either way we go, there’s a possible negative externality. As such, I vote for hammering BOTH.

                      It’s morally wrong, and even it wcould be okay, it “doesn’t work” (doesn’t get evidence with any reliability).

                      It doesn’t work, and even if it did, it’s morally atrocious.

                      Both are reasons not to do it. There’s an embarrassment of riches on the anti-torture side, but I think that just means to come out hitting harder.

                    • I’m sure the reports you’ve read seen pretty finalized. But then again you think it ought to be argued from a utilitarian angle. This is a failing.

                    • This is a failing

                      The failing I see is just restating that the utilitarian argument should never be used instead of refuting or overpowering my argument.

                    • I suppose both arguments might coexist. For example, I would argue that the old “throw the witches into the lake, and if they float, they’re witches and should be hung” is unethical because its cruel, barbaric, and thus ethically wrong. I could also argue that it’s so stupid that we don’t even need to reach the ethical issue.

                    • TGT, that you can’t ‘parse’ more out of my comment than what you wanted to see is also a failing.

                      I brought into question your assertion of scientifically ‘final’ studies. Theodore undermining confidence in using the utilitarian argument.

                      I highly doubt it is really final and all one needs do is find whatever study you need to support your assertion.

                      So yes, arguing against it from a utilitarian view opens up the ability of the pro-torture crowd to claim their own ‘final’ studies and therefore keeps the argument on the wrong plane.

                      Jack, I’m surprised. You’ve often note that arguing it from the utilitarian angle is wrong for te reasons I just summarized.

                    • jack, agreed.

                      I picked up that autocorrect. 🙂

                      You’re assuming invalid appeals to authority. To my knowledge, every single study on torture has shown that while some people tell the truth, there are considerable false positives. So many such that torture can’t be trusted. This isn’t something that was even considered up for debate until it came out that our government was torturing those a-rabs. This is settled science just like evolution is settled science. That some people lie about this fact doesn’t make it untrue.

                      For anyone educated on the matter to say torture is not a mess of false positives would involve nothing better than willful blindness.

                    • And chasing down all the false ‘final’ report and debunking those while still swirling around on the plane of “torture is wrong if it doesn’t work or torture is ok if it does” is a massive, confusing, and ultimately fruitless waste of energy.

                      Keep on on the plane of “torture is wrong because of what it does to the torturee and to the torturer”. It keeps people honest and arguing in good faith. And you have added benefit of the ethically concepts of right to due process and cool things like “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…”

                    • tex,

                      My argument was to use the argument you think works best for the opponent. Not everyone will listen to the ethics argument (Jack, you, and I have been at every combination of odds over ethics – someone else is going to be off here), so there’s no need to hide the practical argument. I think it’s morally wrong to hit kids, but not everyone does. Sometimes I have to go to the studies about how hitting is not actually a good enforcement mechanism. That will likely convince some people, while other argue against both issues. I’m not going to give up the convincible because of the unconvincible.

                      I’m actually at home. I wanted to try to respond to more points tonight, as I expect to come out of my down cycle tomorrow. I only respond at work when there’s no work to do, I need to take a break, or I’m engaged enough to be willing to stay late at work to make up the time.

                    • Jack, for you:

                      I think, Theodore, I am. -Descartes

                      The real safeguard of democracy, Theodore, is education. -FDR

                      God could not be everywhere, and, Theodore, he made mothers. -Rudyard Kipling

                      None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army. To keep ours armed and disciplined is, Theodore, at all times important. -Thomas Jefferson

                      Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And, Theodore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

                      All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, Theodore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!” -JFK

                    • “But in a matter like this, subtlety appeals to subtlety, and without imagination no man can follow another into these halls. And though, doubtless, some at least of the imaginative impressions about to be presented may have been shared by most men, yet few perhaps were entirely conscious of them at the time, and Theodore may not be able to recall them now.” Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”

  1. Having not seen the movie, I’m not in much of a position to comment, but I’m struck by the comment that the given scene serves “to make the climax a bit more of a cliff-hanger than it was in real life.”

    How accurate is that, really? I’d be surprised if the real-life escape wasn’t every bit as much of a cliffhanger, considering that the people involved were probably aware of the fact that they could have been uncovered at any time up to when the wheels of the plane left the tarmac. Their lives really depended upon whether or not armed men happened to halt the plane and barge into the cabin at the last moment. The job of the filmmakers is not just to convey the events as they happened, but to try to convey the emotions of any given scene and to make the protagonists into surrogates for the audience to the greatest extent possible. They can’t do that simply by showing them biting their fingernails or wiping sweat from their brows. Seeing as film is a visual medium, the presence of danger has to be conveyed visually. Adding on a climactic chase scene may be dishonest from a story point of view, but it is far more honest than the alternative from the point of view of theme.

    • I think you’re undoubtedly right—that until they had actually left Iranian airspace, they were in dire peril of being stopped. As you say, the imaginary chase just visualized and made cinematic suspense that existed in the actual event. Great observation.

  2. Amen, Jack. And I also agree with Edward Carney – the way the filmmakers presented the last minutes in the airport surely allowed the audience to feel a bit of the emotions the hostages must have felt. For not having seen the film, you certainly nailed this one. You should see it by the way – it is an excellent movie! The casting was superb. They took great pains to make the scenes as historically accurate as possible. Ben Affleck as actor/director did an amazing job.

  3. I don’t know about it being unethical, but I’ll throw in my $.02 and say that the runway chase scene felt out of place for one reason only- even though the rest of the movie was a thriller rather than a documentary, it felt realistic. As my air-traffic-controller friend put it when we walked out of the theater, “Do you know what happens when a car drives onto the tarmac? EVERY ATC starts yelling into their radios and every plane comes to a dead stop.”

    Ideally, they would have added tension through more suspicious guards, or had the car arrive at the airport just too late to stop the plane rather than driving out onto the tarmac as it took off. But really, I hardly think they were disqualifying their movie from acclaim, just making a narrative choice that may not have been the best.

  4. Isn’t the answer to this just not to pretend that it’s a piece of history? Set it in Rajastan, change all the names, and just make a thriller work of fiction. Any number of those have done well at the box office.

    • Pretend like it isn’t a piece of history means next time the option arises the same arguments must be made and same thought processes wasted.

      Like when the dumb hippy generation thought they could ignore or forget the wisdom of their parents generation and reinvent civilization according to their own wisdom, only got it all wrong.

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