Does history have to be true?

Millions of viewers saw the Academy Awards on Sunday evening as Argo won the award for best film. People who have seen the movie mostly agree that it’s a fine adventure film based on the story of the American hostages who escaped from captivity in Iran in 1979. Everyone seemed happy with the award except for the Canadians who were chiefly responsible for the escape. Somehow the adventure had turned into a CIA caper instead of an appreciation of the help of Canadians, and especially ambassador Ken Taylor, who had planned and carried out most of the successful escape.

Does it matter that a movie gives credit to the wrong people in a film based on real history? It certainly matters to Canadians, especially to those who know and respect Ken Taylor, the former ambassador who was central to the story. Former president Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time of the escape, was one of the few Americans who tried to set things straight. He credited Canadians with being responsible for 90% of the planning and execution of the escape.

In an unusual happy ending, producer and director Ben Affleck worked to set the matter straight by changing a final line in the film to credit the Canadian contribution as an “example of international cooperation” according to newspaper reports. Ambassador Taylor was flown to LA for the Academy Awards ceremony and the story ended with smiles all around.

But did it matter that history was distorted in the first version? It seems to me it does. As most of us are aware, we often get of information about history from movies, television, and fiction. If entertaining stories are based on history, the least their authors can try to do is get the facts straight. The Argo story was corrected because there are many people still around who remember the events. Many other historical events are distorted in films for the sake of building tension or glorifying a hero or some other motive, but those of us who care about understanding the world ought to protest. While we will never know all the facts of history, at least we can try to present honestly the ones that are verified.

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