by 99 Seats
I have been crazy-super-busy of late, but I did have time to see ARGO. Which is a pretty fine film, all told, despite the very bizarre choice of casting Ben Affleck as a man named Tony Mendez (it's funny watching the movie hold back his last name as long as it possibly can). Affleck is a confident, assured director, the movie looks good and the story is pretty compelling. It also fits in the sweet spot for "based on a true story" type deals: the story is new and unknown enough that the outcome is in doubt the whole time, even if you kind of know that it's not in doubt at all. The supporting cast, particular John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Scoot McNairy, is all grand. So...yay, good movie!
But, of course, during the movie, I couldn't get the other spectacle of the week out of my head: Mitt Romney's attempt to "gotcha" President Obama during the town hall debate over the administration's shifting rationales for the attack on the embassy in Benghazi. It was clearly one of the most compelling moments of the debate and, even the campaign. And, ahead of the "foreign policy" debate on Monday, it's looking to loom large in the rest of the campaign.
The moment was interesting not just for the failed gotcha, or the live fact-checking, but also because it offered a quick glimpse into the fevered world of the far right. Romney was caught completely flat-footed by the facts. He was totally convinced that President Obama hadn't used the phrase "act of terror." This is a shibboleth on the right, something that, over the last few months, has become an article of faith. Except for the fact that not only is not true, it's easy to show that it's objectively not true. And yet, conservatives believe it. In fact, it's so important to their beliefs that they're now engaged in semantic hair-splitting to back up their larger point: for some nefarious reason, the administration is invested in covering up the circumstances of the Benghazi's attack.
Josh Marshall and Talking Points Memo have done really great work following this line of thinking on the right. They also note that, in the WaPo, David Ignatius is reporting that the CIA supports the "smoking gun" of the Benghazi myth: Susan Rice's description of the attack as at least partially springing from protests over the much-reviled Innocence of Muslims video, hastily arranged and not professionally carried out. Of course, there remains an ongoing investigation, so it's likely more facts will come to light.
But, after seeing ARGO, I think there's a larger point about how government works, especially in regards to national security, to consider. Because this isn't the first time the charge of "shifting narratives" has come into play for the Obama administration: similar charges were made about the story of the assassination of Osama bin Laden. I think it's easy to lapse into cynicism and paranoia about all of this, especially after the Bush years and their vast politicization of the national security infrastructure (threat level Orange, anyone?), but, beyond that, there's the very real question of how much honesty does our government owe us, particularly about actions outside of our borders.
For those who don't know, Argo tells the story of the rescue of six US embassy workers and diplomats from Tehran after the fall of the Shah and the taking of the US embassy there, when 52 hostages were taken. The film does a great job of capturing the chaos and unpredictability of that time, both here in the US and in Iran. Revolutions are messy, sometimes scary things, as we all know, and the Iranian revolution was no different (for another great take on it, you simply must read/see Persepolis, if you haven't). At any time, the US diplomats in Tehran could be captured, killed, tortured. A CIA agent develops a just-crazy-enough-to-work plan to get the 6 diplomats, who are hiding in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, out: have them pretend to be a film crew, complete with a whole fake movie. The play is indeed just crazy enough to work and so it does...at great personal and professional risk for all of the CIA agents involved. And when it does work, their great job is celebrated in their office for a few seconds and then classified and buried. In the film, that indignity is compounded by the official cover story: that the Canadians (CANADIANS!) pulled it all off on their own. (In addition to the casting issue, there does seem to be some legit controversy about the portrayal of the Canadian ambassador who is mostly seen nobly cowering in fear.) It's grimly noted that, if the CIA had taken credit, the remaining hostages would have paid the price. So no credit was given, an award was given in a secret, private ceremony and then immediately taken back and not conferred until the '90s. There's a great, stiff-upper-lip, all-for-country feel to the latter part of the movie. They don't do it for the glory, these CIA agents.
I'm kidding a bit, but it does raise the obvious question about current events: is it really so implausible that the CIA (and the FBI, which is investigating the Benghazi attack) would want a false story about our working theory of the attack to be the "official" word? Let's say you're the person who pulled off a successful, well-planned and coordinated attack and you hear that we're looking at a disorganized spontaneous attack. Maybe you'd lower your guard a little bit and not expect to get caught. I mean, I just watch a whole lot of cop shows and this is a pretty common ploy. Let's remember that this is still the investigation of a crime.
But there is also the larger picture. A lot of the current dissatisifaction with the administration from the left comes in the realm of "national security," how wars are prosecuted and how the government decribes it. I'm not arguing that the government has complete latitude to tell its people untruths (again, see the Bush years for the worst of that), but...isn't there some room for, well, less than truthiness, in service of larger goals, that may not be obvious to us here? I can see how attractive the charges of "liar" are, especially to the GOP, whose standard bearer has, shall we say, a bit of a problem with that. But I can also see how compelling the desire to "get to the bottom" of things is. It's just not always appropriate. Argo hasn't really entered the political conversation (and it shouldn't...it's a pretty apolitical movie), but it does reflect our time. Carter lost the 1980, in no small part, because of his perceived weakness on the Iran hostage crisis. Having the Canadians take credit for a major coup must have added fuel to the fire, but still, they took the hit. I'm glad that the Obama administration is standing up with some passion (I don't think he needed an anger translator for that section of the debate), but I'd also like them to articulate a little more clearly how it fits into his vision of how government works.