x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Don't let the historical facts get in the way of a good movie

With Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty all up for mega gongs, this year's Oscar could go down as the most historically inaccurate ever. That is, until someone in the future makes a film about it and changes all the facts.

Ben Affleck starred as Tony Mendez in Argo and directed the Oscar-nominated film. Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures
Ben Affleck starred as Tony Mendez in Argo and directed the Oscar-nominated film. Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures

Argo was a great film, wasn't it? Although we all knew that the six embassy staff got away, that bit at the end where Iran's Revolutionary Guard pursued the Swissair flight down the runway in a jeep had us all on the edge of our seats, right?

While this may well be true, the issue lies in the fact that the actual scene itself isn't remotely true, the frantic climactic chase having been added for extra excitement. Aside from the film's curious depictions of Iranians (mostly bearded, mostly angry), there are quite a few other historical issues to contend with, too. The bit in which a CIA chap can't get through to Hamilton Jordan, president Carter's chief of staff, to sign off on plane tickets for the hostages so pretends to call from his kids' school? False. Jordan apparently didn't have any kids at the time.

Much more contentious is Argo's long-discussed downplaying of the Canadian involvement in the escape plan, along with its suggestion that staff at the British embassy turned the six Americans away (they didn't, they took huge risks to help them).

But with the words "based on real-life events" cropping up with increasing frequency, accuracy is seemingly becoming largely ignored in favour of entertainment. And this Academy Awards, which are awash with historic retellings, has plenty of reasons for academics to slams their bifocals down in disgust, even with Mel Gibson nowhere to be seen.

Despite employing not one but three historic advisers, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, up for the most gongs, is accused of being riddled with bloopers. Most of the issues are fairly dreary, concerning its portrayal of the House of Representatives and Abe's meetings with legislators (yawn), but there have also been comments regarding various HBO-style cursing.

Then there's perhaps the most debatable of the lot, Zero Dark Thirty, a film about a piece of history so recent most people can probably remember what was on their toast when they heard the news.

Everyone from Human Rights Watch to prominent senators to a former FBI antiterrorism agent have claimed its suggestions that torture played a vital role in tracking Osama bin Laden are erroneous.

Although Les Misérables is a difficult one to assess, some have claimed Anne Hathaway's daily diet of two thin squares of dried oatmeal paste to get Fantine's waif look was probably the sort of thing she would have eaten at the time. But all that singing? Seems unlikely, given it was during a period of great social conflict.

If you do insist on seeing a Best Picture nomination that hasn't yet rattled any cages, go for Life of Pi. But then again, that does feature a boy and a massive Bengal tiger living together on a small boat.

aritman@thenational.ae

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