I saw Argo a few months ago, long before it won some Golden Globes. I loved it. Great movie. More than my money's worth. Other than Ben Affleck's lame acting, I can't really complain about the entertainment experience. But as a writer I do take exception to how it was presented and packaged. I am fully aware that many do it this way, but nevertheless I still don't like it at all.
When I saw Argo, I knew going in what the story was about and the true ending. Unless they totally distorted that there was going to be no surprise there for me. I assumed there was a story there that I did not know and there was. The ending had to be the same but they told the viewer many new things. They also told the viewer many untrue things. That is always a balance that a writer, director and producer have to consider.
The political thriller is a popular sub-genre in novels, but much less so in film. That’s because the typical opposition in political thrillers – some form of government agency – is so big and so hidden that it’s not a fair fight. Which means political thrillers in film often end badly.
But that’s not the case in Argo. This film is based on real events whose outcome we know, or at least suspect, going in. Besides giving us an upbeat ending, these real events give the highly choreographed thriller beats a raw, gritty believability and tremendous emotional impact.
Still, the true story foundation creates some real problems for the writer. The biggest difficulty you face in writing a true story is that real events don’t tend to have dramatic shape. They often don’t build to a final decisive battle and they often have long stretches of time where no story beats occur.
Again, that’s not the case with Argo. The final battle is extremely dramatic and the short time period in which the key events unfold means there is no down time. But the true story foundation does require Terrio to structure his thriller in a much different way than normal.
My topic for today is: How much license is acceptable to further the dramatic aspect of a book or movie?
How much license is acceptable license? That is a question that all writers have to ask themselves when they base characters on real people and events.
Life can be exciting. Real life can be very exciting. It can also be very boring. Films can never be boring. Not if you intend to make money.
You have to keep the attention of the viewer. They are paying very good money to see your work, and the best way to keep getting paid is to have them recommend your art to others. The better the film does, the more likely that others will hire you again to make more of them.
In the last 3 months, I have seen 3 different movies, all with one common theme. They were all based on true stories, and they all took significant license with the truth to make the finished product on the screen more interesting to the viewer. I will briefly review all 3 films and discuss what I think is acceptable and not acceptable. At the end, I will state my approach to creating art where real life people and events are involved.
For the most part, this movie is giving the impression that most of what they show you is true. It is certainly based on true events and the tone is accurate. But they took very significant license with the truth--and at times--it seemed not to be necessary. When you are dealing with a real person (an icon like Elvis) you simply can't do that. You have an obligation to stick to the truth. They did not.
|Elvis and The Browns in the Hayride days (1954), before he became famous. Bonnie is on the far right.|
In the movie, his high school girlfriend (Bonnie) breaks up with Elvis because he is on the road too much and she gets lonely. In actual fact, he traveled with her and her family (The Browns), because Bonnie was a professional singer as well. They were the main attraction and he was the opening act. Bonnie broke up with Elvis, not because she was lonely, but because he was out scoring with girls every night and she realized what she would have been in for. Something that Priscilla and Linda Thompson found out later. In the interview below, Linda Thompson talks about that reality.
Still, according to Maxine, Elvis fell hard for her younger sister. “Working that close together and being in each other’s company on the road made it inevitable that sparks would fly between Elvis and Bonnie,” she concluded. “I don’t want to exaggerate, but I can safely say that Dolly Parton had nothing on Bonnie.”
In due course, Maxine says, Bonnie and Elvis fell “moony-eyed” in love with each other. Bonnie told her sister that one night Elvis proposed to her and that they planned to marry eventually. But that kind of talk soon ended. “I think she realized even then that life with Elvis, or with any other music star, would have more valleys than peaks,” wrote Maxine of her sister. “So it was Bonnie herself who broke it off with Elvis. I think it hurt him too. He moped around some on the last part of our Texas tour.”
I didn't think the story was any more dramatic or furthered along by changing those facts. Possibly, they didn't want to show his less than honorable womanizing ways in that movie, so they found a way around it. However, that was Elvis. Everybody knows that and they tried to re-write history.
Also in the movie, when Elvis's mother dies in the hospital, Elvis is there. They did this for dramatic effect. However, that is not the fact of the matter. He was in Germany serving his time in the Army when she died. Elvis had a very special and unique relationship with his mother. To play on that and distort the truth completely to make a scene better is not acceptable in my view. They could have been much more creative in the way they approached this and got the same result. They just simply took the lazy way out. Being that it was a very low budget movie that is not surprising.
That is a big leap of fiction to fact-and in my opinion-too big of a leap. Where the character actually was when his mother died-a mother who was very important in his life-is not something you can fudge. It is not the same as taking something out of sequence or context, it is actually re-writing history. Anyone who watched that TV movie would think that Elvis was there as his mother passed away. That is too much over the line for me. Way too far over the line. There were many other parts that were enhanced or taken out of sequence, and many parts conveniently left out, and those could be tolerated, but the death of a loved one is too far over the line.
The Valachi Papers (1972)
The Valachi Papers is a very simple, basic story of how a guy rises in the mob, in the early days, then feels the need to betray them and testify against them to save himself and his family. Because Joe Valachi was the first to ever do this, it was a very significant event in history. Unfortunately, they changed a lot of the facts in the movie. Some made it very dramatic, but I don't think it helped the story along much.
"Puzo's most famous work, The Godfather, was first published in 1969 after he had heard anecdotes about Mafia organizations during his time in pulp journalism."
Because it was a very significant story in the history of America (the first mob guy of any significance to rat out on the mafia) and people are fascinated by stories of the mob, it was a movie that was going to be made. Released in 1972, it came after The Godfather, still considered the greatest movie on the mafia to this day. Whereas The Godfather was based on real people but a completely fictionalized story, The Valachi Papers was based on a true story, but deviated significantly from the truth. Movies like this need to take dramatic license to really catch the audiences attention otherwise it is just a bunch of crazies having sex, killing people and swearing a lot. Even great movies like Donnie Brasco, Casino and Goodfellas took a lot of liberties with the truth. The Valachi Papers however, took them with no real benefit. They could have avoided the sensationalism they employed.
Specifically, in the movie they show Joe Valachi killing a man, who was his cohort in the mafia after a mob enforcer had castrated him. In fact, that event never happened. It was meant to show how deranged and violent these mob types were, but there were many ways that were also truthful in which they could have showed that. Many critics jumped on this scene as something that simply was not necessary.
"The film departed from the true story of Joseph Valachi, as recounted in the Peter Maas book, in a number of ways. Though using real names and depicting real events, the movie also contained numerous events that were fictionalized. Among them was the castration scene and the "I can only kill the living" Maranzano comment, which was widely ridiculed by critics."
Not only was that scene not accurate and never happened, in fact that character was not killed at that time by the mob. It was grossly inaccurate and strictly for dramatic effect. As was the end scene where they purport that Joe Valachi attempted suicide right after he testified in 1963. In fact he did not do that until 1966. There were other minor changes and as a whole they didn't follow much of the "true story" they based the movie on. I think using the Godfather example is the better way to go. Create your own fictional characters and then do what you want with them. But when you use real people and events, your leeway to take liberties is very limited. Or should be anyway. Based on a true story is not the same as telling a true story inaccurately. It is offered as such, but it isn't. That brings us to Argo.
ARGO (2012)As mentioned earlier, Argo was a great film, Highly entertaining. But being that I lived through the whole "Iran Hostages" affair, I am aware that they took significant liberties with the truth. In my view, they are unacceptable. And not just in my view.
Many have criticized the film for unfairly glorifying the role of the CIA and minimizing the role of the Canadian government, particularly that of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, in the extraction operation. And that is an very accurate point. That did happen.
Macleans asserted that:
"the movie rewrites history at Canada's expense, making Hollywood and the CIA the saga's heroic saviours while Taylor is demoted to a kindly concierge." When interviewed, Taylor noted that, "In reality, Canada was responsible for the six and the CIA was a junior partner. But I realize this is a movie and you have to keep the audience on the edge of their seats."
Bob Anders, the U.S. consular agent played in the film by Tate Donovan, commented that in actual fact "[t]hey put their lives on the line for us. We were all at risk. I hope no one in Britain will be offended by what's said in the film. The British were good to us and we're forever grateful."
The then-British ambassador to Iran, Sir John Graham, said that:
"My immediate reaction on hearing about this was one of outrage. I have since simmered down, but am still very distressed that the film-makers should have got it so wrong. My concern is that the inaccurate account should not enter the mythology of the events in Tehran in November 1979."
Ben Affleck's response to this was to be expected.
"Because we say it's based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we’re allowed to take some dramatic license. There’s a spirit of truth."
Of course, that just isn't so. The spirit of the truth doesn't include making the audience believe that the Brits and other countries simply turned away the hostages, and that the Americans played a much larger role in their release, when in fact it was the Canadians who played the major role.
Affleck is quoted as saying to the Sunday Telegraph:
"I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair. But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone."
In fact, for most who saw this film and were not born or were too young to remember the events, or even just don't know the facts that surrounded the release and escape of those six hostages, that is exactly what it does. It diminishes the true heroes and what they did to save six lives, while all the time putting their lives and careers on the line. The fact of the matter is that it was just the opposite. The diplomats from New Zealand and Britain were very helpful.
"Upon its wide release in October 2012, the film was also criticized for its claim that both New Zealand and British diplomats turned away the six Americans on the run in Tehran. In fact, diplomats from New Zealand proved quite helpful; one drove the Americans to the airport.The British also hosted the Americans initially, but the location wasn't safe and the Canadian embassy was viewed as the better location. British diplomats also assisted other Americans beyond the six."
In addition, there are gross inaccuracies and made up scenes, strictly for dramatic effect, with no basis in fact whatsoever. You could even say they were against the facts and gross lies.
"The film depicts a crisis over purchasing plane tickets for the six, but this did not occur, with Taylor's wife purchasing three sets of plane tickets from three different airlines ahead of time.
The movie also shows Taylor threatening to close the Canadian embassy, and the six going to a bazaar, neither of which ever occurred."
Finally, Affleck justifies his creative license this way:
"the kinds of things that are really important to be true are—for example, the relationship between the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. stood up collectively as a nation and said, ‘We like you, we appreciate you, we respect you, and we’re in your debt.’...There were folks who didn’t want to stick their necks out and the Canadians did. They said, ‘We’ll risk our diplomatic standing, our lives, by harbouring six Americans because it’s the right thing to do.’ Because of that, their lives were saved."
And for that, he is right. The Canadians did do that. And so did The Brits and New Zealanders. But now, many who saw this film will not think that. Because Affleck chose to distort and lie about history to serve his end goal. Whereas, he just could have taken the Godfather route and made up a bunch of characters and story and a fictional event where he could have taken as much license as he so desired, and in so doing not slandering real people. But he did not.
And he did not because it sells more tickets when you make it about a real event, with real people and just change the facts to make it more interesting and dramatic. That has been the case for a very long time, but it is something that should change. And won't.