Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Does the whole truth matter? - it's ARGOable.

There's always been a debate about the veracity of films "based on a true story", and one of the Oscar favourites, Argo, is no exception. It's a great story, and a cracking film, so does it matter if it changes the narrative for the sake of drama? 

Argo charts the story of six Americans who escape the storming of the US Embassy in Iran in 1979, are given a cover story by the CIA and pose as Canadian film-makers before making their escape. Though the basic story is true, in reality their cover was never threatened, and the role of the CIA in their escape has been somewhat enhanced. In reality, the escapees were initially sheltered in the British embassy, and then moved to the Canadian embassy where the role of the Canadian ambassador was crucial. In the film we see the fugitives turned away from the British embassy, and the Canadian ambassador is reduced to a bit-player in favour of the film's real hero, a CIA mastermind played by Ben Affleck, who also directed the film (in a manner deserving of an Oscar).

So what? Films are drama and entertainment, so what does it matter if they don't depict the whole truth? Provided that's how people see it, then there isn't a problem. However, the line between truth and fiction is a blurry one at the best of times, and some people are likely to see events through the lens of Hollywood and imagine that's how it was. Maybe films "based on a true story" should also include the word "loosely" or simply finish with a disclaimer that says 'look guys, this isn't really what happened, but trust us, it's way more exciting than the true story".

Which brings me to the world of speaking, where stories are told and re-told. Is it fair to change what actually happened in order to make a stronger point? I tend to think it is. All speakers embellish stories to increase the drama and interest. Sometimes we enhance the role of minor characters. Sometimes we shift the action to a more exotic location. Sometimes we even edit the dialogue we used at the time to make our point more strongly. I mean, who hasn't ever walked away from a conversation and then thought of exactly the bon mot they should have used at the time? What's more, who hasn't felt their eyes heavy with boredom listening to someone relate every single detail of a story which is completely true, yet stultifying?

So perhaps "based on a true story" is how we all communicate at times. Maybe we shouldn't criticise Mr Affleck at all, since he's made a terrific film and if he wins the Oscar, will do so deservedly.

1 comment:

Donn King said...

Good points, Alan! I teach my students to think in terms of hard support (objective information used to prove something and convince an audience) and soft support (subjective information used to illustrate something and move an audience). Hard support has credibility requirements that should lead a speaker to verify sources, check facts, and reproduce information faithfully--you'll lose credibility otherwise. But soft support mainly requires citing sources for ethical reasons, and otherwise you can, um, enhance the story without losing credibility. That certainly fits your insights fairly well.