How Films are Rewriting History

Written by Martha Wyatt-Luth

Opinion’s Editor ‘25

Over Thanksgiving Break, I re-watched several movies with my family. One notable film was Argo, Ben Affleck’s thrilling exposition of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979. Besides the star-studded cast and phenomenal production, the film lingered in my memory for another reason. Like the majority of American-produced movies I’ve watched, this film ended on a happy note with the US victorious and seemingly unscathed. I realized, after a brief search, the plot of Argo greatly diverged from the actual event. It made me wonder, does American-centrism, through film, influence public opinion on historical events?

Taking a step back, it’s important to see how other forms of information influence public opinion. The general population holds a lot of their perception based on the education gained in pre-collegiate school. Unsurprisingly, the United States education in historical studies is very westernized. It has both a predominant curriculum focus on US History and an American and/or euro-centric bias on the majority of World History. As a result, a very “white-washed” narrative has been created. 

The textbooks incorporated into coursework are often very skewed and deliberately leave out the perspectives of minorities involved in historical events. As Peter McLaren, Professor of Critical Theory states, “knowledge acquired in school-or anywhere, for that matter-is never neutral or objective but is ordered and structured in particular ways” (1989). Although students may believe they are educated on an event, they could be completely misguided. They can only defend themselves through confirmation bias and perpetually live in misinformation.

Fortunately, this issue with textbooks has been noted for quite some time by scholars. Efforts have been made in many American schools to incorporate a wider variety of sources, perspectives, and inclusion of more historical events in curriculums. But what about movies?

As seen in the past century of wars, written material and films are interchangeable forms of information and even propaganda to influence public opinion. And if the films seem more interesting to us, they may stick in our memory longer. Furthermore, films have far more influence than just providing mere two-hour entertainment, they can shape the way we see the world. 

For example, the movie Argo portrays the United States, specifically the CIA, as a superhero saving six American diplomats from Iran during a hostage takeover. But in reality, Canada played just as big a role, or even bigger, than the U.S. in saving these Americans. The movie brushes entirely over the British embassy providing initial shelter to several of the Americans. It also portrays the Canadian embassy as passively agreeing to the American exfiltration plan to bring the American hostages back to the US. However, the Canadian and United States governments worked together to formulate the plan. In addition, all of the dramatic scenes trying to out-smart the Iranian soldiers were completely made up. Rather than reflect an admirable example of international diplomacy, the movie reflects yet again the savvy and domineering abilities of the U.S.

The importance of creative expression and freedom of speech would make it unconstitutional to censor or alter such film productions. Some movies based on true stories do include tidbits of information at the end of the film in order to make it seem credible. However, this only further makes the audience believe that the movie is an accurate representation of the event. Argo did exactly that, by providing both a documentary-style narrative at the beginning and a display of facts at the end of the film. One resolution is the requirement of a disclaimer at the beginning and end of a movie that is “based on a true story.” This would tell the audience that the film is a creative expression of an event, rather than an accurate account of the event.

Beyond the responsibility of the film producer, it is up to the audience to view media in an educated manner. One habit I’ve made in the last five years is to briefly research a movie after I’ve watched it. My concern over film accuracy grew after noticing major discrepancies between the movie plots and the actual events. Although it may seem tedious, the habit can be quite advantageous. The movie is likely to stay in your memory longer through this process, known as an elaborative rehearsal. Consumers create further associations with the movie through, for example, reading about the event or watching interviews of the cast. Becoming a more informed consumer can actually be an even more enriching way to engage with the media.

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