Saturday, 2 March 2013

Argo and Historical Truth

What is truth, said Pilate, and would not wait for an answer.  Or so says Francis Bacon, recycling a Biblical story that is probably not true itself.  It’s a good story, though, or a good line.  It reminds me of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the line in it about printing the legend, not the fact: it makes a better story to say that the meek Eastern lawyer (Jimmy Stewart) somehow got the better of the evil Valance in a duel (the underdog triumphing and doing justice) than that another gunman (John Wayne) shot him from behind.

Which brings me to Argo and the fuss over whether it’s true or not, or an insult to Canadians, or another sign of the evils of Hollywood or of Americans.

I saw Argo a few months ago.  It was a gripping, suspenseful film.  I quite enjoyed it, even though I was troubled by the depiction of what I had always regarded as an act of Canadian heroism. 

I’m old enough to remember 1979-80, the capture of the American embassy, the escape of six Americans, the praise heaped on Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.  I felt proud back then.  It was at the same time that Terry Fox did his marathon, but that didn’t move me.  Ken Taylor, a Canadian ambassador, a Canadian ambassador, a Canadian, the quintessential meek underdog type, had somehow shot Liberty Valance, and won a small battle against evil.  That moved me.  I remember a cartoon, I believe an American cartoon, of the time depicting a hulking American in a bar saying to a tiny Canadian on the barstool beside him, “Guess I owe you one.”

It was a wonderful story – and true!

Except then Argo came along and made it sound not so true, made it sound like all the praise from the Americans for the Canadian rescue was just a cover story so as not to further inflame Iranian revolutionaries against the United States.  I felt deflated.  It’s like the scene in Liberty Valance where the real story is revealed.  But in the movie the crusty old newspaper editor refuses to print the real story.  Ben Affleck, in contrast, did.

Unless Ben Affleck’s version is itself not true.  And there have been all sorts of commentaries, especially here in Canada, to say that Argo is inaccurate; it’s those nasty Americans taking credit for a Canadian caper; it’s Hollywood distorting the facts again.

And I think, well, yes, Hollywood distorts the facts; all artists distort the facts.  I wouldn’t read War and Peace to get an accurate depiction of Napoleon in Russia, or listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture for that either.  Art is art, and history is history, though often the lines are blurred, and there are post-post-whatever type critics who I’m sure will tell us that history is all just subjective nonsense written by the winners etc. etc.

Maybe in the end we all just like a good story.  The Americans have their good story now, which I, as a Canadian, can enjoy even if part of me feels diminished by the undermining of the old Canadian story that I lived through and took pride in.

I don’t think we really want the facts, though, not in a piece of art, and even outside art.  We like our legends; some things are so good they ought to be true, as the saying goes.  The trouble here is that we have competing legends.  I’m not sure what to do about that.

(Thanks to Cindy Heinrichs, Joan Stuchner, and Lesley Johnson for inspiring me to muse on this.)

No comments:

Post a Comment