Men and the Sea

by Mary Jo

A few days ago, the Mayhem Consultant and I watched a movie we both loved: The Finest HoursDVDFinest Hours.   Based on the book by the same name by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman), it's the true story of an insanely brave Coast Guard rescue that took place in a vicious nor'easter storm that took place off Cape Cod in 1952.  (Released in January 2016, the movie didn't make much impact, but it deserves to be seen.)

The storm was so violent that it broke two tanker ships in half near Cape Cod.  Both were cheaply built WWII vessels that should have been retired after the war, but weren't.  One Coast Guard rescue team went out for the SS Fort Mercer and managed to save a number of the crew.  Then it was discovered that a second tanker, the SS Pendleton, had also broken in half nearby.  The front half of the ship sank immediately, taking the captain, the radios, and most of the officers.

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ARGO: How far can the truth be bent before it’s too far?

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

The 2012 movie Argo was a critical and commercial success and won three Oscars, including for the best picture of 2012.  It’s based on the “Canadian Caper,” a real incident in which the Canadian Embassy in Tehran concealed six American fugitives who escaped when the American embassy was attacked and occupied in 1979 and most of the staff was taken hostage. 

Argo2012PosterAfter three months of hiding the fugitives at great personal risk, the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his people got them out of Iran to safety.  In a dark time, this was a heart warming story, and Americans everywhere were saying, “Thank you, Canada!”

So it was good fodder for a movie, and ARGO was well made and very successful,  Ben Affleck directed, co-produced, and starred as Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration” expert who specialized in getting people out of dangerous places.  (Mendez’s own book on his experiences was a major source for the script.) 

It’s always tricky making a movie of a recent event where everyone knows the outcome, as with APOLLO 13, but good storytelling can have the audience biting their nails even though they know what happens.  So I figured that the filmmakers probably exaggerated and shaped the events some to raise the tension level, and that’s okay. 

But I hit the wall when we were watching the movie and it was said that the Apollo 13Americans had been turned away by the British and the New Zealanders before ending up with the Canadian ambassador.   WAIT A MINUTE!!!  That does NOT sound like the Brits and Kiwis I know.  I frankly did not believe it. 

And I was absolutely right.  As soon as the movie was over, I went upstairs to my computer and did some quick research.  This from Wikipedia:

"Upon its release in October 2012, the film was criticized for its claim that British and New Zealand Embassies had turned away the American refugees in Tehran. This claim was incorrect, as neither the British or New Zealand Embassies had turned the refugees away. In fact, the embassies of both of those countries helped them, along with the Canadians. The British had initially hosted the American refugees, but the location was deemed to not be safe, and all involved countries considered the Canadian ambassador's residence to be a safer location. New Zealand diplomatic ambassadors also put themselves at huge risk while assisting – by organising a place for the refugees to hide if they needed to change their location,[43] and by driving the Americans to the airport when they made their escape from Tehran.[44] British diplomats also assisted other American hostages beyond the escaped group of six.[45] Bob Anders, the U.S. consular agent played in the film by Tate Donovan, said, "They 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."[46]"

Even the Canadians were undervalued because the movie basically chose to be a Thank you, Canadahero story focusing on the CIA guy.  President Jimmy Carter said that the Canadians did 90% of the heavy lifting. That included holding a secret session of the Canadian parliament to approve issue of six false Canadian passports for the fugitives, something that had never been done before. Talk about going above and beyond the call of duty! 

I do understand the need to shape the material to make a gripping movie, but how much is too much?  At the very least, the movie should have carried an apology Ambassador Ken Taylorto the Canadians, the British, and the New Zealanders.  Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor himself listed a number of the film’s inaccuracies

Affleck said (again this is from Wikipedia): “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.”

Maybe not, but given the power of film, this warped version of the truth can end up changing the public perception of what happened.  This troubles me.  A LOT.   

Ben Affleck as Tony MendezAuthors often have to deal with similar questions in order to make a story work better.  This is why we have authors’ notes, to explain which parts of a story are true and which part are invented.  As a reader, I want to know that, so I figure many of my readers will feel the same.

How much license are we allowed in dealing with real history?  And is one factor how recent the events were?  It may be illogical, but I feel much more strongly about maintaining the truth of recent events. 

As a somewhat related sidebar, we just rewatched the most recent version of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.  I read the book long, long ago, and The Count of Monte Cristo movieit’s sprawling and complicated and full of poisonings and suicides and dark plots.  The recent version is stripped down to a much simpler, historical romance version.  I thoroughly enjoyed it—but there were a lot of changes from the original! 

Even though the recent movie was Monte Cristo Lite, I was willing to give it a pass because I enjoyed it, it was based on a novel, which is already fiction, and it was old. 

For Argo, I was willing to overlook a number of things the movie did to boost the tension, but I am offended by actions and words that damaged the honor of people and nations involved.  As I said, at the least there should have been a much better disclaimer at the end.

So what about you?  Are you bothered when movie makers distort the truth?  Are there examples of movies you hate because of this?  Are there other movies that largely got it right?  And how much does it matter if the subject is recent or old?

Mary Jo, pondering