Terry Gross’ interview with Ben Affleck on Tuesday’s “Fresh Air” is a uniformly interesting discussion about the making of Affleck’s “Argo,” and the effort and ethics that go into bringing quasi-historical depictions to the big screen. But it becomes particularly interesting about halfway in, when Gross asks Affleck about his approach to handling history in a motion picture. He admits to taking creative license with the movie:
Affleck: It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened.
Gross: … As a viewer whenever I see a biopic or a historical film, I’m always wondering what’s true and what’s false, and what can I trust. Because I think movies that are historical have usually a dual goal, one is to like enlighten you about this really interesting story that actually happened and the other is to entertain you, because it’s a movie. As someone who is interested in historical accuracy and journalistic accuracy I know that movies aren’t journalism except for documentaries . . .
Affleck: Unless they say they’re journalism, yeah.
That sure sounds like a dig at “Zero Dark Thirty” director Kathryn Bigelow, who has called her film “journalistic” in its approach — and continues to face serious criticism that her film falsely portrays torture as a key to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. (Recently, Dick Cheney daughter and chief defender Liz Cheney tweeted: “Just saw Zero Dark Thirty. Excellent film about years of heroism, including in the enhanced interrogation program, that led to bin Laden.”)
When Gross mentions “Zero Dark Thirty,” Affleck dodges briefly, saying, “I wouldn’t want to comment on any other filmmaker’s work except to say that I understand that there is a push and pull” in choosing how to portray a real story and make it a film. But he goes on to say that “I deeply, deeply believe that one has to stay true to the essence of the events that you’re telling because you’re conferring meaning. You want people to walk out of there and say, I understand this more deeply. And that — if you corrupt that, it’s a tremendous betrayal.”
“Argo” faced some mild criticism from some critics who thought the dramatic finale stretched the truth too far, and faced early challenges by Canadian critics, who felt their government was given too little credit — which Affleck addressed in tweaking the film’s postscript language. But it has largely avoided any real concerns over its history — perhaps because it never claimed to be anything more than a movie.