Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter says Canada contributed 90 per cent to the escape of six Americans hidden in the homes of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and diplomat John Sheardown, during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency contributed the other 10 per cent. Mr. Carter was in a position to know, and there is no reason to believe he is being falsely modest.
Those 90-10 proportions were, roughly, reversed in the Ben Affleck-directed movie, Argo, which won the Oscar for Best Picture on Sunday night. The movie stole Canada's glory.
A little consternation is deserved – perhaps even obligatory – but it's worthwhile asking why we don't do a better job at creating our own myths through film. A relatively small audience, poor economics, competition with the behemoth next door – all true, but all excuses, somehow, for a lack of vision and power. Quebec filmmakers have been producing strong films – including Rebelle, an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, the third year in a row for a Quebec film – and are showing that it can be done.
To the storyteller goes the right to tell the story in his or her own way. Ben Affleck, also the movie's star, is right to say that "based on a true story" does not mean the story is true. Artists should and do have licence to tell their own truths. They do not need to let the facts stand in the way of a good story. (Canada had its own kick at this one – a 1981 TV movie starring Gordon Pinsent as Ken Taylor. It was the Americans' turn.)
Argo's ending, for instance, involving a near-catastrophe and a chase scene, is pure fiction. To ask whether it was a good ending is not to ask whether it was true. The question is whether it served the story, and the audience. It did.
The U.S. myth-making machine that is Hollywood has no counterpart in Canada. There can't be many people who watch U.S. movies expecting them to be "true" in the sense a documentary is true. Anyone who watches U.S. movies should realize that there is often something very false in the depictions of people, society and history and, paradoxically, a reflection of something very true to the U.S. mythos – the beliefs, values and attitudes that make up that society. Argo in that way is typical Hollywood.