Tuesday, February 5, 2013

History According to Hollywood

Dear Hollywood,
So it turns out I am completely ignorant when it comes to certain aspects of US politics but luckily Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty have been giving me quite the education this month.

And by certain aspects I do mean events that happened last year.

Jessica Chastain

I find it disturbing to learn the finer details of more recent global occurrences e.g how the CIA located Osama bin Laden, from a film. Especially when I read the details of the Geronimo/Neptune Spear operation with interest when it was first pulled off last year, but sadly I only really transfer CIA ops to the long-term memory portion of my subconscious if Jessica Chastain demonstrates an unrelenting passion towards them.

I also thought I knew a few of the finer details of the American Civil War. Like why the fighting stopped. But after watching Lincoln it turns out I had no idea. I had several muddled ideas.

Abraham Lincon, Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg

And I can’t even pretend with Argo. I had no idea about the events surrounding the hostage situation in Iran. I was the guy who read the subtitles and went “huh, you would think I would know more about this.” 

I am quite the ignoramous.

But in fairness, the nitty gritty details of how the CIA got six Americans out of Iran during the seizure of the American embassy were not revealed until the events were declassified in 1997. Not that that is an excuse of why I didn’t know how they got out of the country. I wasn’t like,  “but did they really escape because of a Canadian effort?  I just don’t buy it.”

Ben Affleck, Tony Mendez

Learning about the sacrifice and bravery of real life men and women from the movies is a brilliant, yet ultimately depressing way of making us (or ME) aware of our own history. Entertaining and informing is a surefire way of presenting chapters of history that, whilst fascinating, can sound drier on paper.

Abraham Lincoln’s bid to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution involves a lot of backroom conversation and political manoeuvring which you were less likely to learn about in the British education system. Much like Americans do not know all the finer details of the Magna Carta signing, but are well informed on how many wives Henry VIII killed, the more razzle dazzle parts of history are the bits that stick. Yet these films, which basically deal with a lot of people in high-ranking governmental organisations trying to argue for the lives of other people, are fascinating.

Obviously Zero Dark Thirty is a film, not a documentary, built to entertain rather then retell and I am sure the actual details of how the CIA put together all the intel which helped them locate Bin Laden is far more complicated and dull then can be portrayed in 120 minutes, but it goes some way to demonstrating the relentless hard work of men and women who will never get to wear a shiny dress to a movie premiere, or have a calorie counted meal delivered to their door.


Same for Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who concocted and pulled off the absurd Hollywood plan to get the US embassy workers out in Argo. He pretended they were part of a film crew involved in making a science fiction film in order to fly them safely home. That's mental. He was rewarded with a shiny CIA Intelligence Star, but it was not publicly acknowledged until thirteen years ago, and now he has gotten his dues again. Being played by Ben Affleck probably gets more people interested in his actions then when his plan became public knowledge. 

Plus he got to be played by Ben Affleck. So handsome.


However Argo, with its presentation of the CIA as being the real heroes who let Canada take the limelight for political retaliation reasons, has troubled some people. Like Canadians. The film was also under fire for its condemnation of the New Zealand and British Embassies for not taking in the US six straight away. In truth the Brits looked after them first before giving them to Canada for safe keeping. SO THERE AFFLECK. The limeys made them scones and pudding before the Canadians took them in.

But again. Film. Poetic license. It’s allowed when people are going to Wiki the film straight after asking themselves “did that really happen?” Then the real history lesson begins.

I am (hopefully) not stupid enough to take it all as read. Even when watching Argo, I was aware the intense chase scene at the airport might have been elaborated upon. Or as it turns out, completely made up. With this in mind I was a bit confused by the configuration of the end credits which place images from the film next to historical photos to show the aesthetic similarity. This seems out of place in a movie which deviates from the truth so much. That seemed sneaky, or at least self congratulatory of you Affleck. 

With Lincoln I not only learnt about the workings of American politics in days of yore, and how depressingly little has changed (there are still a few modern day self serving Lee Pace's about), but also about why Lincoln is regarded as such a keen political mind.

A obvious and accepted sentiment, yes, but appreciated more when Daniel Day-Lewis is showing me exactly why he was ace, not only as a leader but also as a lawyer, with his well timed tales and persuasive skills. I took for granted he did some remarkable things because it is the accepted thinking, but understanding how he managed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, with a few sneaky tricks and bribes, is important, depressing and kind of realistic. Sure, poetic license had Lincon-Lewis talking in parables all the time, which got a tad worthy by the end, but it was a demonstration of how democratic and thoughtful this very tall man was.

So things are looking up Hollywood, you made me realise how it takes a few great and determined people to save the world and you added in extra car chases. 


Ellen xo

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