Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance via satellite from the White House to give the Oscar for Best Picture was perfectly fitting: Hollywood was choosing among three front-runners that portrayed very different views of U.S. presidents and history – high drama, gritty suspense and a stylish thriller.
Set aside the costumes and the score and the editing and all that – the whole storytelling part of each movie – you can argue that by giving the Oscar to “Argo,” Hollywood made a choice about U.S. history, too. And it chose a happy ending regardless of how distant it feels from reality.
Yes, “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s movie about a daring CIA plan to disguise the evacuation of six embassy workers hiding in Tehran in the wake of the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, is a good yarn. It seems fanciful even though it is based on a true story.
The CIA developed a fake movie as a cover story. It ultimately took an agent’s defying orders to get the plan hurtling toward its successful conclusion and the embassy workers holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s residence out of Iran.
“I want to dedicate this to everyone who uses creativity to solve problems non-violently,” said “Argo” screenwriter Chris Terrio, accepting the award for adapted screenplay.
But without taking anything away from the efforts of CIA operative Tony Mendez or his band of movie producers, whose efforts led to the rescue of six Americans, the events of the movie are a sidebar to the Iran hostage crisis that so dominated the news for more than 400 days between 1979 and 1981 and unalterably changed U.S.-Iran relations. (For perspective, there would be no ABC News “Nightline” if there had been no hostages.)
And the military’s attempt in April of 1980 to rescue the 52 hostages who spent more than a year in Iranian captivity cost the lives of eight U.S. service members. That is barely mentioned in the film. But the failed rescue probably had as much to do with Jimmy Carter’s defeat that November as President Obama’s gamble to OK a strike on Osama bin Laden’s secret hideout in Pakistan had to do with his re-election.
“Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t about a desperate and creatively hatched rescue, but instead a dozen years-long manhunt. It has been criticized for featuring scenes involving the torture of captured enemy combatants. Torture, critics say, didn’t lead to the capture of bin Laden. But so-called enhanced interrogation techniques were used by Americans in the wake of Sept. 11.
Instead of the humor and style of “Argo,” it has a studied focus. The CIA is still up to creative tricks in “Zero Dark Thirty”: There is glancing mention that they created a local vaccine program in a failed attempt to get inside bin Laden’s compound before storming it. And it, too, portrays an agent flouting agency convention in her pursuit of bin Laden and her lobbying for political buy-in. The movie ends with the killing of bin Laden, but it is anything but happy.
While “Argo” shows Affleck’s character’s sighing relief on a plane with his rescued charges out of Tehran, “Zero Dark Thirty” ends with Jessica Chastain’s character alone, weeping, and presumably wondering what to do next. That seems a bit like U.S. foreign policy in general in the Middle East.
The death of bin Laden might have been a major victory for the United States, but with one post-Sept. 11, 2001 war in Iraq over and the drawdown of U.S. troops now started in Afghanistan country, bin Laden’s death in a third country, nearly two years on, seems to have very little effect on the direction this country was taking toward drone strikes and targeted killing of suspected terrorists.
There’s no doubt what Abraham Lincoln accomplished by pushing the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, through a divided House of Representatives in 1865 that changed the trajectory of the country.
Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” dealt with the at-times underhanded efforts the president and his men undertook to buy off skittish lawmakers and perhaps extend the end of the Civil War. Lincoln is portrayed as a man. He won’t let his son join the Army even as tens of thousands of other men’s sons are dying on both sides of the war.
Imagine that reality in the age of Twitter. These are the things muted by history, but that seems relevant now as the White House and Congress face off again and again on today’s problems.
The end of the Lincoln story is well known. The war ended days before he was shot in April of 1865 and the 13th Amendment, having passed through the House in January of 1865, was added to the Constitution that December.
But the moral stain of slavery is brought into sharp relief by the movie. It is satisfying to see the bill proposing the amendment pass the House. But it is painful, even at this distance from the actual events, to come to terms with how difficult it was for this country to close that chapter.
“Argo” escapes the moral difficulties of the other two movies about politics and government, in part, by focusing on such a great story. It isn’t so much about the Iranian hostage crisis as it is about a caper. The hostage crisis and the politics are just part of the scene.