Monday, February 25, 2013

A Real Crash As Fake Movies Honored (Argo and Zero Dark Thirty - Honored?) Positively Surreal!

(If throwing a contribution Pottersville2's way won't break your budget in these difficult financial times, I really need it, and would wholeheartedly appreciate it. Anything you can afford will make a huge difference in this blog's lifetime.)

Yes, this was written before the Oscar was trashed, but the reviews are dead on.

Don't miss the comments! They tell even more of the tale.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oscar Prints the Legend: Argo's Upcoming Academy Award and the Failure of Truth

One year ago, after his breathtakingly beautiful Iranian drama, "A Separation," won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, writer/director Asghar Farhadi delivered the best acceptance speech of the night.

"[A]t the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians," he said, Iran was finally being honored for "her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics." Farhadi dedicated the Oscar "to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."

Such grace and eloquence will surely not be on display this Sunday, when Ben Affleck, flanked by his co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, takes home the evening's top prize, the Best Picture Oscar, for his critically-acclaimed and heavily decorated paean to the CIA and American innocence, "Argo."

Over the past 12 months, rarely a week - let alone month - went by without new predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuclear weapon and ever-looming threats of an American or Israeli military attack. Come October 2012, into the fray marched "Argo," a decontextualized, ahistorical "true story" of Orientalist proportion, subjecting audiences to two hours of American victimization and bearded barbarians, culminating in popped champagne corks and rippling stars-and-stripes celebrating our heroism and triumph and their frustration and defeat. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir aptly described the film as "a propaganda fable," explaining as others have that essentially none of its edge-of-your-seat thrills or most memorable moments ever happened. O'Hehir sums up:

The Americans never resisted the idea of playing a film crew, which is the source of much agitation in the movie. (In fact, the “house guests” chose that cover story themselves, from a group of three options the CIA had prepared.) They were not almost lynched by a mob of crazy Iranians in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, because they never went there. There was no last-minute cancellation, and then un-cancellation, of the group’s tickets by the Carter administration. (The wife of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor had personally gone to the airport and purchased tickets ahead of time, for three different outbound flights.) The group underwent no interrogation at the airport about their imaginary movie, nor were they detained at the gate while a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard telephoned their phony office back in Burbank. There was no last-second chase on the runway of Mehrabad Airport, with wild-eyed, bearded militants with Kalashnikovs trying to shoot out the tires of a Swissair jet.
One of the actual hostages, Mark Lijek, noted that the CIA's fake movie "cover story was never tested and in some ways proved irrelevant to the escape." The departure of the six Americans from Tehran was actually mundane and uneventful. "If asked, we were going to say we were leaving Iran to return when it was safer," Lijek recalled, "But no one ever asked!...The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador's residence in Berne. It was that straightforward."

Furthermore, Jimmy Carter has even acknowledged that "90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA...Ben Affleck's character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process."

Taylor himself recently remarked that "Argo" provides a myopic representation of both Iranians and their revolution, ignoring their "more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn’t just a violent demonstration for nothing."

"The amusing side, Taylor said, "is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he's talking about."

O'Hehir perfectly articulates the film's true crime, its deliberate exploitation of "its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological." Not only is it "a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue," but "[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology."

Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck's own comments about the film. In describing "Argo" to Bill O'Reilly, Affleck boasted, "You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it's a thriller. It's actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It's a complicated CIA movie, it's a political movie. And it's all true." He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he "absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story."

"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," Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo's BFI London Film Festival premier, "This movie is about this story that took place, and it's true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we're taking a cold, hard look at the facts."

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, "I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that's another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible -- because I didn't want it to be used by either side. I didn't want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them."

For Affleck, these facts apparently don't include understanding why the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and occupied on November 4, 1979. "There was no rhyme or reason to this action," Affleck has insisted, claiming that the takeover "wasn't about us," that is, the American government (despite the fact that his own film is introduced by a fleeting - though frequently inaccurate1 - review of American complicity in the Shah's dictatorship).

Wrong, Ben. One reason was the fear of another CIA-engineered coup d'etat like the one perpetrated in 1953 from the very same Embassy. Another reason was the admission of the deposed Shah into the United States for medical treatment and asylum rather than extradition to Iran to face charge and trial for his quarter century of crimes against the Iranian people, bankrolled and supported by the U.S. government. One doesn't have to agree with the reasons, of course, but they certainly existed.

Just as George H.W. Bush once bellowed after a U.S. Navy warship blew an Iranian passenger airliner out of the sky over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranian civilians, "I'll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don't care what the facts are." Affleck appears inclined to agree.

If nothing else, "Argo" is an exercise in American exceptionalism - perhaps the most dangerous fiction that permeates our entire society and sense of identity. It reinvents history in order to mine a tale of triumph from an unmitigated defeat. The hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days and destroyed an American presidency, was a failure and an embarrassment for Americans. The United States government and media has spent the last three decades tirelessly exacting revenge on Iran for what happened.

"Argo" recasts revolutionary Iranians as the hapless victims of American cunning and deception. White Americans are hunted, harried and, ultimately courageous and free. Iranians are maniacal, menacing and, in the end, infantile and foolish. The fanatical fundamentalists fail while America wins. USA -1, Iran - 0. Yet, "Argo" obscures the unfortunate truth that, as those six diplomats were boarding a plane bound for Switzerland on January 28, 1980, their 52 compatriots would have to wait an entire year before making it home, not as the result of a daring rescue attempt, but after a diplomatic agreement was reached.

Reflecting on the most troubled episodes in American history is a time-honored cinematic tradition. There's a reason why the best Vietnam movies are full of pain, anger, anguish and war crimes. By contrast, "Argo" is American catharsis porn; pure Hollywood hubris. It is pro-American propaganda devoid of introspection, pathos or humility and meant to assuage our hurt feelings. In "Argo," no lessons are learned by revisiting the consequences of America's support for the Pahlavi monarchy or its creation and training of SAVAK, the Shah's vicious secret police.

On June 11, 1979, months before the hostage crisis began, the New York Times published an article by writer and historian A.J. Langguth which recounted revelations relayed by a former American intelligence official regarding the CIA's close relationship with SAVAK. The agency had "sent an operative to teach interrogation methods to SAVAK" including "instructions in torture, and the techniques were copied from the Nazis." Langguth wrestled with the news, trying to figure out why this had not been widely reported in the media. He came to the following conclusion:

We – and I mean we as Americans – don’t believe it. We can read the accusations, even examine the evidence and find it irrefutable. But, in our hearts, we cannot believe that Americans have gone abroad to spread the use of torture.

We can believe that public officials with reputations for brilliance can be arrogant, blind or stupid. Anything but evil. And when the cumulative proof becomes overwhelming that our representatives in the C.I.A. or the Agency for International Development police program did in fact teach torture, we excuse ourselves by vilifying the individual men.
Similarly, at a time when the CIA is waging an illegal, immoral, unregulated and always expanding drone execution program, the previous administration's CIA kidnappers and torturers are protected from prosecution by the current administration, and leaked State Department cables reveal orders for U.S. diplomats to spy on United Nations officials, it is surreal that such homage is being paid to that very same organization by the so-called liberals of the Tinsel Town elite.

Upon winning his Best Director Golden Globe last month, Ben Affleck obsequiously praised the "clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving over seas, I want to thank them very much," a statement echoed almost identically by co-producer Grant Heslov when "Argo" later won Best Drama.

This comes as no surprise, considering Affleck had previously described "Argo" as "a tribute" to the "extraordinary, honorable people at the CIA" during an interview on Fox News.

The relationship between Hollywood and the military and intelligence arms of the U.S. government have long been cozy. "When the CIA or the Pentagon says, 'We'll help you, if you play ball with us,' that's favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda," David Robb, author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies" told The Los Angeles Times. "The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin."

Awarding "Argo" the Best Picture Oscar is like Barack Obama winning a Nobel Peace Prize: an undeserved accolade fawningly bestowed upon a dubious recipient based on a transparent fiction; an award for what never was and never would be and a decision so willfully naïve and grotesque it discredits whatever relevance and prestige the proceedings might still have had.*

So this Sunday night, when "Argo" has won that coveted golden statuette, it will be clear that we have yet again been blinded by the heavy dust of politics and our American mantra of hostility and resentment will continue to inform our decisions, dragging us closer and closer to the abyss.

***** ***** *****

* Yes, in this analogy, the equivalent of Henry Kissinger is obviously 2004's dismal "Crash."


1 The introduction of "Argo" is a dazzingly sloppy few minutes of caricatured history of Iran, full of Orientalist images of violent ancient Persians (harems and all), which gets many basic facts wrong. In fact, it is shocking this intro made it to release as written and recorded.

Here are some of the problems:

1. The voiceover narration says, "In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mossadegh, the secular democrat, Prime Minister. He nationalized British and U.S. petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people."

Mossadegh was elected to the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) in 1944. He did not become Prime Minister until April 1951 and was not "elected by the people of Iran." Rather, he was appointed to the position by the representatives of the Majlis.

Also, the United States did not have petroleum interests in Iran at the time.

2. After briefly describing the 1953 coup, the narrator says Britain and the United States "installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah."

Wow. First, the Shah's name was not Reza Pahlavi. That is his father's (and son's) name. Furthermore, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was not installed as Shah since had already been Shah of Iran since September 1941, after Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran and forced the abdication of his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi.

During the coup in 1953, the Shah fled to Baghdad, then Rome. After Mossadegh had been forced out, the Shah returned to the Peacock Throne.

This is not difficult information to come by, and yet the screenwriter and director of "Argo" didn't bother looking it up. And guess what? Ben Affleck actually majored in Middle East Studies in college. Unsurprisingly, he didn't graduate.

The rest of the brief intro, while mentioning the torture of SAVAK, glosses over the causes of the revolution, but lingers on the violence that followed. As it ends, the words "Based on a True Story" appear on the screen. The first live action moment we see in "Argo" is of an American flag being burned.

Such is Affleck's insistence that "Argo" is "not a political movie."

Still, as Kevin B. Lee wrote in Slate last month, "This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive — because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves."

He continues,
Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies — still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.
And brilliantly concludes,
Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans. We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this — not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.

Were you worried that the epic Zero Dark Thirty was overlooked?


Monday, February 25, 2013

The Guardian

Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA and Film Critics Have a Very Bad Evening

by Glenn Greenwald

Just a few months ago, the consensus of the establishment press and the nation's (shockingly large) community of film critics was that Zero Dark Thirty was the best film of the year and the clear (and well-deserved) front-runner to win the most significant Academy Awards. "OK, folks, you can plan something else for Oscar Night 2013 . . . . Zero Dark Thirty will win Best Picture and Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow)," pronounced Time Magazine's Richard Corliss. "'Zero Dark Thirty' and Kathryn Bigelow won major critics' prizes on Sunday, confirming the Osama bin Laden manhunt thriller as an Oscar frontrunner," said Entertainment Weekly.

The film "looks like the movie to beat right now" as the critics' awards "landscape is dominated by Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty,'" reported the Washington Post's Jen Chaney.

But then political writers had begun to notice what film critics either failed to detect or just wilfully ignored. The film falsely depicted torture as instrumental in the finding of Osama bin Laden ("what is so unsettling about 'Zero Dark Thirty' is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it", said the New Yorker's Jane Mayer). Beyond the torture falsehoods, it was a blatant vehicle for CIA propaganda, bolstering a worldview exclusively out of Langley ("This is not a coincidence. The CIA played a key role in shaping the film's narrative," reported BuzzFeed's Michael Hastings; the CIA "couldn't have asked for better product placement", said the New York Times' Timothy Egan; as a result, said The Atlantic's Peter Maass: "Zero Dark Thirty represents a new genre of embedded filmmaking that is the problematic offspring of the worrisome endeavor known as embedded journalism"). In sum, said MSNBC's Chris Hayes, the film "colludes with evil" (a long but very partial list of writers, filmmakers, FBI agents and even government officials who similarly denounced the film is here).

The first sign that this fallout was harming the film was when its director, Bigelow, was not even nominated for Best Director. And now, on Sunday night at the Academy Awards, Zero Dark Thirty got exactly what it deserved: basically nothing other than humiliation:

"'Zero Dark Thirty,' about the decade-long US hunt for Osama bin Laden, has received more attention in the US Congress than it did at the Oscars on Sunday, amid political fallout over its depiction of torture and alleged intelligence leaks to the movie's makers. . . .

"Just three months ago, the thriller, which culminates in Osama bin Laden's killing by US Navy Seals, was a strong contender to pick up the biggest prize of Best Picture, as well as the Best Actress and Original Screenplay awards.

"By the end of Sunday night, however, it had picked up just one award – a shared Oscar for Sound Editing, which was a tie."
(I'm actually glad that it won essentially half of an award, for sound editing, as that's somehow more cruel than if it just won nothing).

This is a rare case of some justice being done. There's little question that the objections to its pro-torture depictions and CIA propaganda were what sunk the film. In explaining why its Oscar chances had all but disappeared, the Atlantic's Richard Lawson explained last month that as a result of the controversy, the film has "just become something vaguely taboo". That's a good thing, as it should be taboo. The film is unsurprisingly a box office success, earning in excess of $100 million. But still, it's both gratifying and a bit surprising to see that this CIA-shaped jingoistic celebration of America's proudest moment of the last decade - finding bin Laden, pumping his skull full of bullets, and then dumping his corpse into the ocean - ended up with the stigma it deserves.

In response to this controversy, both Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have compounded their original bad acts. Bigelow spent months literally pretending that the actual criticisms of her film did not exist and thus never addressed them. She instead chose to wage war on the obviously ludicrous strawman argument that absolutely nobody made: that merely to depict torture is to endorse it and that omitting torture would be to "whitewash" history. Nobody complained that the film depicted torture; the complaint was that it falsely depicted it as vital in finding bin Laden and thus portrayed it in a falsely positive light.

Meanwhile, Boal has been playing the McCarthyism martyr by pretending that the Senate is investigating his film over its pro-torture message. Such an investigation would indeed be odious, but it's a figment of Boal's imagination. To the extent the Senate has expressed any interest in investigating, it is not over the film's content but whether the CIA passed classified information about the bin Laden raid to Bigelow and Boal in order to get the film it wanted (though not dispositive, there is ample evidence to believe this). The investigation targets the CIA, not the filmmakers. For an administration that has waged its own war on whistleblowers by prosecuting and imprisoning them at record numbers, surely the CIA's abuse of classified information for the purpose of producing Hollywood propaganda merits a formal investigation, particularly since the government has vigorously resisted disclosure attempts in court from the media and advocacy groups on the ground that the bin Laden raid is classified.

From this controversy, the film critic community stood revealed as well. Objections to this film triggered an incredibly acrimonious reaction on the part of professional critics who, prior to the emergence of the controversy, had lavished the film with the most gushing accolades. One of the best essays on why that happened was from Reuters' culture critic Alissa Quart, who explained that the critics' anger over this film being "politicized" reflects a broader syndrome where political indifference is viewed as some sort of virtue:

"In the postwar decades, the best reviewers of the day saw addressing the politics within the cultural works they reviewed as part of their jobs. . . . Writers like [Mary] McCarthy, who was both a theater critic and a political writer, were more attuned to the ideological sources behind play and film, as they came up in the Depression and the war years, according to Hunter College Professor Richard Kaye, who is working on a project about McCarthy. After all, art was explicitly tied to politics within fascism as well as within communist states. Watching the power of ideology at work within fascism made writers more likely to combine politics with aesthetics. They understood the propagandistic potential of overwhelmingly dramatic popular entertainment."

"Today, in part because because popular art has largely been decoupled from politics, film critics tend to be narrower in their expertise. They are also operating in an America where 'partisan' and 'political' have been made to equal each other in a toxic way. Thus, critics and many political thinkers can't necessarily agree on a critical focus. . . .

"But if political writers do their job well, they understand something even more important: that ideological meaning and agendas are not incidental to thrilling films and cinematography. Why surgically remove politics from a discussion of a film's final quality, rendering the argument so purely aesthetic that it becomes low-brow decadent . . . . Ethical lapses or gaps in movies should be critiqued, along with bad performances or absurd storylines."
Another equally good discussion of the exposed mentality of film critics came from Jeff Reichert, himself a filmmaker and critic:

"If Bigelow and Boal want to insist they haven't made a movie that validates torture morally, that's fine. But to label it apolitical, as they have repeatedly done, either suggests willful mendacity or ignorance. Their film quite clearly stakes out a position on one of the more controversial political questions of the last decade in American politics, and soon it will be making its case several times a day on thousands of screens around the country. Greenwald's writings on the film may hyperventilate, but when one considers the scale of the historical rewrite we're about to witness, his pitched tenor is more forgivable. Maybe 'propaganda' isn't so far off the mark after all.

"If our critical culture handled films of this ilk with something other than kid gloves, we might not have to continually address these same, tired questions. . . . It's become all too commonplace for critics to float above the fray, and praise works they find aesthetically valuable and politically questionable (a replaying of the old Leni Riefenstahl debate again), but is this l'art pour l'art stance any way to watch movies? Isn't this just abdicating a crucial part of the critical act? Wouldn't we rather our film writers be morally engaged viewers rather than diffident aesthetes? . . . .

"Especially in light of how the filmmakers have spoken about their work, the problem with Zero Dark Thirty becomes less that it ends up making a forceful case for the efficacy of torturing human beings for national security - it's that one can easily walk away from the film doubting whether Bigelow and Boal have even realized that this is what they've done."
In an era where virtually everything the government does is shielded from disclosure, democratic accountability, and even the rule of law, films such as Zero Dark Thirty that purport to tell political stories are inherently highly political, likely to have an enormous impact on how political events are perceived. When blatant falsehoods are presented as truth on critical questions - by a film that touts itself as a journalistic presentation of actual events - insisting on apolitical appreciation of this "art" is indeed a reckless abdication.

That's particularly true when the film creates itself as a servant to political power: by itself, the CIA's heavy (and still unexamined) involvement in this film is a significant and disturbing development. The last thing America needs is more ways to celebrate and glorify US militarism, and the second-to-last thing it needs is Hollywood devoting its multi-million-dollar budgets and emotionally and psychologically manipulative tactics to propagating the CIA worldview as indisputable, inspiring truth. It's a very good thing that all of this did not go unnoticed or rewarded.

On Argo

The film that won most of the significant awards (including Best Picture), Argo, has received its own criticisms for false history and US/CIA propaganda; as but one example, see here from Iranian-American writer Nima Shirazi.

Whatever is true about that film showing events from three decades ago, the CIA was much more involved with and invested in Zero Dark Thirty; that's why it played such a significant role in how it was made.

(Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian. A former constitutional lawyer, he was until 2012 a contributing writer at Salon. His most recent book is, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. His other books include: Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.

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