Argo: Essentially not a true story

Published: March 1, 2013

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. PHOTO: PUBLICITY

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

Noman Ansari

A freelance writer and regular contributor to The Express Tribune magazine and newspaper, Noman tweets as @Pugnate (twitter.com/Pugnate)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • https://twitter.com/Pugnate Noman Ansari
  • radiowarsx

    You are incorrect on one account. The Canadians DID in fact close their embassy. That part was true. It was not reopened for 8 years after the hostage crisis.Recommend

  • Usman

    Chill out bud – just another movie! :)Recommend

  • Critical

    And Americans wonder why the Canadians aren’t always very fond of their neighbours

    Americans hate Canada nowadays as much India hates Pakistan…

    *Pakistan sent Ajmal Kasab to India,while Canada sent Justin Beiber to America…..:) *Recommend

  • maryam

    this movie made me so angry!!it wasn’t the reality of us (we Iranian i mean)!!
    we are humane but not just some savage tribe!!!….this movie did all it could to insult us!!! why?…just because our government don;t have good relationship?! that is not fare!!!they do all this to convince u that your government have this right to kill Iranian or better to say Moslems!! what they did in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia .Libya and Mali this days of course!!!
    THEY ARE TRYING JUST TO SHOW TE REALITY AS LIE AND OF COURSE VICE VERSA!!!Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/Pugnate Noman Ansari

    @maryam:

    Well. That’s taking it a bi far. The exaggerations were for dramatic effect, but the Islamic students revolution did happen. I don’t think the movie showed the Iranian people as a savage tribe. That embassy take over did happen, and it didn’t happen with Iranian students passing chocolate cake and icecream. Recommend

  • MK-Ultra

    Historical inconsistencies and it’s blatant sycophancy towards Hollywood aside, Argo doesn’t have much to offer even if solely critiqued from a cinematic perspective. Unlike Affleck’s previous offerings, Argo isn’t too comfortable in its own skin – the humor is contrived at best and the suspense overblown to the extent of forsaking any semblance of reality. Even the music score largely sounded like a 70s mixtape you find in your parent’s basement.

    It’s victory over the other worthy candidates shows how Hollywood is in love with itself, little else.Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/Pugnate Noman Ansari

    @radiowarsx:

    For some reason my reply to you wasn’t published. Mod team?

    Basically I was saying that the ambassador never threatened to close the Canadian embassy.

    http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/2012/09/19/benaffleckchangesargopostscriptforken_taylor.html

    “Nor did Taylor ever threaten to close
    down the Canadian embassy, leaving his
    secret U.S. house guests with nowhere
    to hide. Nor did the six ever go to a
    bazaar. “I would never have allowed
    that,” says Taylor.”

    Recommend

  • Saif

    What has happen to you guys?? It was a movie, though “based on actual events”, but it has to be sugar coated to attract cine-goers with dramatic elements. And it is not first time it happen in history of movies, you can hardly find a movie with 100% accuracy with creating these dramas because real life is something boring to watch.Recommend

  • Imaan

    Bit of an exaggeration, especially after Ben affleck himself said he tweaked the story to make it more dramatic. Pointless article much? I think so.

    Also, I don’t think life of pi deserved best picture, best director was rightly deserved and Ang lee got it. But the film itself wasn’t that special. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Argo at the end of the day was all about waving the American flag, something the Oscar thingee does quite well…………..what about Michelle Obama from the White House ?
    As entertainment Argo was good but as entertainment Tarrantino’s 2.5 hrs of Django was superb……………and movies are all about entertainment ( to quote Vidya Balan ).Recommend

  • ss

    events had to be exaggerated after all it’s a Hollywood movie not a documentary..Recommend

  • R@vian

    who care … MY FAV !Recommend

  • Hasan

    Well it makes sense if you take into account the fact that the movies like Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and an older one, Black Hawk Down are made to fan the flames of patriotism and attempt to block the plummeting sense of pride in the American forces. I did not watch Zero Dark Thirty and I do not know the actual story that was portrayed in Argo but I can say for Black Hawk Down, that was hugely exaggerated!

    An acquaintance of mine was there in Mogadishu serving in Pak Army and he was seething with anger when he saw the film. The part where the Pakistani ‘jawaan’ forbids the American soldiers from entering the APC and they had to walk behind the convoy. According to him, it was the other way around, the Americans were so terrified that they demanded the Pakistanis vacate the APCs and let them travel in them. He said the role of Pak Army was essentially left out in the movie.Recommend

  • Pakistanian

    its disturbing how ET provides space for this kind of nonsense! Editors? anywhere?Recommend

  • HRK

    Noman, – very well written. I was just discussing it with an Iranian coworker yesterday, and his point was: “fine if a movie was made on it, but why NOW?” And I guess we all know the answer to it, given the geopolitical pressure Iran is under with regards to its nuclear developments and the sanctions US wants to impose on it, this is the perfect time to gain public support through such a movie. Recommend

  • Usman

    I think you seem to be overly emotional about the fact that the movie somehow got credit. I think the movie was very skilfully made and Ben Affleck deserves credit for bringing such a dull story to the cinema and still going away with awards. He re-created the scenes as any movie maker would have done, although I agree the part in the end where they chase off the plane is a bit too dramatic.
    People should put aside their emotional problems with America or Iran before reviewing a movie. It was a suspense thriller, it was quite good. I will advise people to watch it, it is not very dramatic at all. We do not need the anti-American sentiment ruining our movie watching experiences too. Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/Pugnate Noman Ansari

    @Pakistanian:

    I am equally disturbed. I think the ET is playing a joke on us. Recommend

  • Somebody7

    @Noman Ansari:
    Well, I have to agree with Maryam and disagree with the response you gave to Maryam. I have to disagree with you that the dramatization is justified because the Iranian embassy takeover did happen. Perhaps they should make a movie about how an American navy ship shot down an Iranian passenger aircraft (killing everyone on board) a few weeks after this embassy incident was over………American retribution? And most Americans are brain-dead, they are shown movies such as this one and believe it to be reality. How about make a movie about how the Shah of Iran was creating turmoil for the Iranians by heavily taxing them, and allowing European firms to drill and make maximum profits at the expense of the people of Iran. Recommend

  • Somebody7

    @maryam:
    Yes, I agree with you. This is all in preparation for destruction of Iran. And most Americans would justify an invasion based on this premise that Iranians are savage and brutal….as the movie wrongly depicts. Unfortunately, I would say that if you want to survive then you should think about leaving Iran, or ask your relatives and friends to leave, because that ‘wiping off the map’ phrase was never intended for Israel…..it was always intended for ‘Iran’. Once Iran is gone, then sales of oil to China and India will be through NATO controlled oil, at some hefty price tags. Recommend

  • maryam

    @Noman Ansari:

    my dear!of course it happened!! .but in which way?
    how was the manner of that student?
    what they did with them?
    where they have been kept?
    and more important than any thing is that;
    why they did that?
    and of course what they found there?

    finding the true answer of all this help U decide much more better!!!Recommend

  • maryam

    @Noman Ansari:

    my dear!of course it happened!! .but in which way?
    how was the manner of that student?
    what they did with them?
    where they have been kept?
    and more important than any thing is that;
    **why they did that?**
    and of course **what they found there**?

    finding the **true** answer of all this help U decide much more better!!!Recommend

  • Imran

    @Noman Ansari

    Bravo man. I did quite a similar analysis on that movie. However, there are a few things I wish you had added to your write-up such as:

    “when making a movie about your nation & an opposition, why is it necessary to deprive the opponents off common sense? By this, one of my references is to the events that took place on the airport in movie. Instead of making a call to the control tower or alerting the Iranian Air Force, they started ramming gates with guns & whatever was available on hand. Needless to mention, it must have taken considerable time for the plane to make it out of Iranian air limits during which the plane could have been brought down by one single message from control tower. Also, the portrayal of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in particular & Iranian populace in general is so degrading that it seems as if there is a group of innocent human beings stranded on an island whose human population has recently been transformed into zombies”.

    Once again, a very good analysis. I wish to read more from your pen on cinema as a fellow movie fan :)Recommend

  • TTChaz

    Get over yourself. So Serious. It was a movie BASED on actual events, not factually true. All movies BASED on actual events take some liberties to make it a more interesting or exciting movie. It was a well done movie.Recommend

  • TUS

    Imagine chasing a B747 on full-throttle, rolling down the runway for take off. Each engine on that beast was probably putting out 40-45,000 lbs of thrust – yet the vehicle carrying the revolutionary guards right behind the jet did not get blown away!Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/Pugnate Noman Ansari

    @TTChaz:

    I am trying really hard, but it is difficult to see past my awesomeness.

    I shall try harder. Recommend

  • Muzammil Kamran

    100% true
    Thumbs up because there are only few left who are determined to bring out the truth
    a fine piece Nouman…Recommend

  • NAR

    It’s a movie, not a documentary! Rubbish article.Recommend

  • Amye73

    @Somebody7: I really don’t think any movie goer sees Argo as a documentary – therefore, especially for a movie that held my attention and heart with a bit of suspense thrown in, I believe Argo accomplished what it set out to be – a story BASED on fact, but, produced for entertainment – I’m glad it won best picture and the fact it won Best Adaptation From a TRUE Story lets us know nobody saw it as a movie based solely in fact.Recommend

  • Somebody7

    @Amye73:
    I watched the movie with my family, and it was a fair movie, but definitely not worthy of Oscar. I will not be watching it again, because it was only good the first time. It got an Oscar to brainwash people like you that Iran is a country of demons who chant death to America all day long. No!!! They are hard working people and have relationships with neighboring countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Pakistan, China and India. The one movie that should have got an Oscar for Best Picture should have been Life of Pi, because it had a deep meaning, and the presentation far exceeded than the mediocre Argo. Like he said in the end, Argo #$%^ yourself. Recommend

  • Truth

    @maryam: your country — in Iran — lacks civility and respect for law. Consequently, the post Revolutionary nation of Iran is (history notwithstanding and contributions to learning and modernity rejected by the current government)Recommend

  • Truth

    @Hasan: Say what you will about the United States, but the courage and skill of its armed forces are beyond reproach. And Pakistan is a den of snakes, thieves and liars. Defend Pakistan at the risk of impairing your family’s honor and respectability.Recommend

  • Truth

    @Somebody7:

    A pox on you and your family. The Ruling Council and Revolutionary Guard seek to retain power for the few (like the Shah) and eliminate the people’s freedom to select self governance (like Russia, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan). If you believe in the ability of the people to self govern, you cannot believe that Iran is free. Recommend

  • Whirled Traveler

    Why are people upset at the inaccuracies of this film? It is FICTION, not a documentary. No one has said it is a factual account of the events of that time. It is Hollywood, plain and simple. We should be looking at this movie as just that – a movie.Recommend

  • Canadian

    The Canadians saved the day again and the Amercians want to take credit.Recommend

  • Jeffrey Davis

    Also the film claims that the British had made no effort to help which is the opposite of the truth.Recommend

  • Wam

    I was going to make the same point as Jeffrey Davis. The film claims that the British and New Zealanders refused to help the six when they left their embassy. This is not true. They only approached the Canadians, due to personal friendships, who immediately offered to help. Affleck has no idea what the Brits and Kiwis would have done if approached. Certainly, the Brits did offer help once they were aware of the plight of the six, but this is suggested only by giving an English accent to the character Affleck meets in Istanbul. I have no issue with bending some facts for dramatic effect, but Hollywood too often fails to see how its version of the world can be quite demeaning to others. Hollywood, like it or not, is the world’s window on US thought and culture. There is an old phrase ‘remember people on the way up because they will certainly remember you on the way down’. The US is past the apogee of its power. Recommend

  • Julie

    I don’t think this movie portrayed Iranians as savages. In fact, I was really surprised that they didn’t kill anyone right off when they took over the Embassy. I am really interested to read more about survivor accounts because I’m sure it was a terrifying experience. But, as an American, I can completely understand why the people of Iran did what they did. I’m surprised they didn’t do more to be honest. It’s like America only cares about the countries where we can benefit. .Recommend

  • Savages

    While the portrayal of the Iranian people may have been less than flattering, was it unfair? The hostage crisis did really happen. Street lynchings did happen. Has any embassy in the United States ever been overrun by angry citizens? Have we held anyone’s ambassadors hostage for over a year? Would you expect to see someone hanging from a crane in downtown Washington D.C.?

    I don’t argue that the USA is innocent. They are not. Certainly, our actions around the world give people good reason not to trust us. Still, look at how the Iranian people chose to handle it, and how the Iranian government allowed them to. Look at how America responded, how even our citizens responded in not doing the exact same thing to the Iranian embassy (our government would have severely punished our people for that). Listen to Carter say with pride how the situation was resolved peacefully, and look to what happend in Iraq a few years later for how a less peaceful solution might have worked.Recommend