‘Based on a true story.’ It is a phrase commonly superimposed on a black screen, utilised by the filmmaker to evoke a deeper level of resonance and authenticity before the first scene even plays out. In recent times, the adaptation of real-life events to film has become particularly ubiquitous: complex real-life stories are regularly re-moulded into exciting (and potentially award-winning) cinematic experiences.
When dealing with Hollywood cinema and politics, this dramatisation of truth can ignite a firestorm of controversy. This reached fever pitch at the Oscars this year when almost all of the politically-minded films nominated for ‘Best Picture’ found themselves under a cloud of intense scrutiny: according to critics, the respective filmmakers were playing a little too fast and loose with the truth. As the awards season progressed, the accusations against Argo and Zero Dark Thirty (and even Lincoln) ranged from attempting to rewrite history to acting as reprehensible ‘propaganda.’
As Anthony Morris entertainingly mused on Killings in February, the awards season is always dominated by a ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ mentality. It is a time where nominated films can turn from critical darlings to overrated duds in the space of a few days. Making a great film is never enough: the studio, cast and crew must act like politicians, engaging in a shameless war of self-promotion and back-stabbing to even be considered in contention.
Despite the dust having finally settled on the awards season (where Argo emerged as the victor – Zero Dark Thirty a humbled loser), the politics of both films and the subsequent passionate discourse continues to add new layers of intrigue.
As a film that dramatises the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the pre-emptive allegations that Zero Dark Thirty would be pro-Obama propaganda quickly evolved into vigorous debate over its depiction of interrogation and torture. In the film, operatives engage in CIA-defined ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (code for waterboarding and sleep deprivation) on al-Qaeda suspects.
Even in an age of terrorism, where the 9/11 attacks have altered the sociological landscape of America forever, torture inevitably remains a highly contentious issue. Despite riding an initial wave of prestige and acclaim, the critical backlash towards Zero Dark Thirty intensified with the notion that the film created a false impression that torture was central to the capture of bin Laden. This culminated in the U.S. Senate launching an extraordinary investigation to determine whether CIA officials ‘gave the filmmakers “inappropriate” access to secret material.’ Most curiously, however, this case was quietly closed just a day after the Oscar winners were announced.
While screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow were coming under heavy fire for making Zero Dark Thirty ‘unsavoury’ and ‘borderline fascistic’, Argo began gaining more traction as the little political film that could. Chronicling the true story of a CIA agent’s improbable rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, director Ben Affleck has admitted to taking certain liberties with characters and events from the story to expand the film’s dramatic possibilities.
In this obsession over veracity, how Argo mostly escaped the explosive brunt of criticism for not sticking to the real-life script (at least until it collected a bunch of shiny awards) remains a staggering point of interest. However it wasn’t completely without scrutiny: the film’s representation of the Iranian people has been condemned as ‘deeply troubling’, while British and Canadian diplomats have also spoken out about the inaccurate depictions of their respective embassies.
Is it fair to question the disparity in the level of criticism over the politics in these films? Deborah Orr boldly surmises in The Guardian that this could have something to do with the fact that Affleck – unlike Bigelow – shrewdly doesn’t offer the US more truth than it can bear.
In defence of Zero Dark Thirty’s authenticity, Bigelow has gone on record declaring that torture was ‘a part of the story we could not ignore.’ Affleck has taken an even more pro-active approach to the backlash in Argo, amending the film’s postscript to emphasise the Canadian influence in the rescue operation.
Amid U.S. Senate investigations, accusations of partisanship and debate over truth and lies, it is generally agreed that Argo and Zero Dark Thirty shine as genre films of the highest order. Fundamentally, these films are pulsating and engaging thrillers that ambitiously attempt to document complex and provocative socio-political issues.
A major source of contention and debate with both films lies partly in their ambition. Affleck and Bigelow are not interested in churning out dreary, unassuming political puff pieces: Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have meticulously-plotted narratives that are laced with harrowing doses of realism.
For the viewer though, tension and suspense often comes from the difficultly in distinguishing fact from fiction. The memorable opening sequences in both films exploit this murky line between journalism and dramatisation, seamlessly interweaving snippets of archival footage with actors playing major characters.
What is fascinating in these particular cases is the focus that has been directed on the filmmakers for over-emphasising the level of journalistic authority that exists when making a film dramatisation. Is there a certain level of devotion filmmakers should have when it comes to political veracity? Perhaps more cynically though: when has the truth ever gotten in the way of a good story in Hollywood?
In translating this kind of challenging political material into a crowd-pleasing commercial film, the viewer is offered a disturbing glimpse into a world typically shrouded in darkness and secrecy. However, it is important to remember that for all the politics packed into films such as Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, it always remains just a glimpse, an opportunity to think more deeply about controversial issues that often demand greater consideration.
Scott Macleod (@ScottWMacleod) is a Killings columnist, academic, freelance writer and ardent cinephile. He currently lives in the lovely town of Adelaide, the so-called ‘home of serial killers’.