I saw "Argo" with Jerry Rafshoon, who was a top aide to President Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis, when six Americans escaped and were given sanctuary for three months by courageous Canadian diplomats. We were watching a scene where a CIA guy can't get through to Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief of staff, to sign off on plane tickets for the escaping hostages, so he pretends to be calling from the school where Jordan's kids go.
"Hamilton wasn't married then and didn't have any kids," Jerry whispered, inflaming my pet peeve about filmmakers who make up facts in stories about real people to add "drama," rather than just writing the real facts better. It makes viewers think that realism is just another style in art, so that no movie, no matter how realistic it looks, is believable.
The affable and talented Ben Affleck has admitted that his film's climax, with Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers jumping in a jeep, chasing the plane down the runway and shooting at it, was fabricated for excitement.
Hollywood always wants it both ways, of course, but this Oscar season is rife with contenders who bank on the authenticity of their films until it's challenged, and then fall back on the "Hey, it's just a movie" defense.
"Zero Dark Thirty," "based on firsthand accounts of actual events," has been faulted for leaving the impression that torture was instrumental in the capture of Osama. It celebrates Jessica Chastain's loner character, "Maya," when it could have more accurately and theatrically highlighted "The Sisterhood," a team of female CIA analysts who were part of the long effort.
And then there's the kerfuffle over "Lincoln," which had three historical advisers but still managed to make some historical bloopers. Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, recently wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that "Lincoln" falsely showed two of Connecticut's House members voting "nay" against the 13th Amendment for the abolition of slavery.
"They were trying to be meticulously accurate even down to recording the ticking of Abraham Lincoln's actual pocket watch," Courtney told me. "So why get a climactic scene so off base?"
Courtney is pushing for Spielberg to acknowledge the falsity in the DVD, a quest that takes on more urgency now that Spielberg has agreed to provide a DVD to every middle and high school that requests it.
Tony Kushner, the acclaimed playwright who wrote the screenplay, told me he was outraged that Courtney was getting his 15 minutes by complaining about a 15-second bit of film on a project that Kushner worked on for seven years.
The writer completely rejects the idea that he has defamed Connecticut, or the real lawmakers who voted "aye." He said that in historical movies, as opposed to history books where you go for "a blow-by-blow account," it is completely acceptable to "manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn't always organize itself according to the rules of drama. It's ridiculous. It's like saying that Lincoln didn't have green socks, he had blue socks."
He feels that if he had changed the margin of the vote, or made someone a villain who was not in real life, that would have been inappropriate. (He's one-up on Shakespeare there.) But he wants "wiggle room" on some things.