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U.Va. faculty go to the movies

History Prof. Gerald Haines praises Argo's accuracy

After Ben Affleck’s Argo scored big at the Oscars a few weeks ago, A&E sat down with History Prof. Gerald Haines, in the latest installment in our U.Va. Faculty Go to the Movies series. The Best Picture winner depicts a CIA secret rescue operation in politically unstable Iran, and while it certainly offers its fair share of trademark Hollywood thrills and comic antics, much of the movie’s intensity and intrigue arises from the allegedly factual basis of the plot. According to Haines, who also served as a former chief historian at the CIA, Affleck got most things right from a historical standpoint.

“You have to give Hollywood a little leeway,” Haines said. “I enjoyed it immensely. You have to take part of the films with a grain of salt. You can’t expect 100 percent accuracy from Hollywood. If they get 80 [or] 90 percent of it right then they’ve done extremely well.”

One of Argo’s great factual successes is its depiction of the planning that went into the mission, which included launching a massive marketing campaign for a fake film, Haines said.

“The detail there is just incredible,” he said. “They did put ads in Variety and such.”

For a film that exposes so much of the CIA planning system, we wondered how much of a hand the agency had in the production.

“I’m sure [the CIA] had a hand of reviewing it,” Haines said. “They were pretty liberal in allowing him to talk about sources and methods. That’s a very closely held part of the organization.”

The agency’s involvement makes sense, Haines said, given the fact that the mission in question was so successful.

“They really did something right,” he said. “You compare and contrast that with the major covert operation [to rescue hostages directly from the Canadian embassy] that went terribly wrong and it’s a good feel-good story.”

Still, Affleck did stray from complete accuracy in some areas for the sake of heightening the film’s dramatic qualities.

“When you get to the end and the Iranians are chasing them, this didn’t happen,” Haines said. “The Iranians didn’t find out until the Canadians held a press conference and said they got the Americans out. They didn’t mention the CIA at all.”

The role of the Canadians in the movie has recently become the subject of some controversy, with some saying Affleck downplayed the Canadian ambassador’s involvement.

“I don’t think they underplayed [the ambassador’s] role,” Haines said. “I think he takes more credit than he perhaps deserves. Yes, he gave his permission and knew about it, but he wasn’t involved in the details. [But] the Canadian government should get a lot of credit. I think it shows the real partnership between the United States and Canada, which is a lasting alliance. It goes back to the intelligence partnership between Britain, Canada, Australia, [New Zealand] and the US.”

Affleck was able to largely stick to historical accuracy because, at least with this event, the truth is stranger than fiction, Haines said. The movie’s intensity comes from the real-life suspense of the situation, and Haines agreed that the movie’s edge-of-the-seat feeling parallels how covert operations can be.

“The success of the event was great planning, timing, circumstance, luck — it plays a role in every event,” he said. “Things don’t always hinge on planning to the last detail. To plan, be flexible and improvise.”

Argo won this year’s coveted Best Picture award among a particularly good year of movies, but did it deserve it?

“If I were a film critic I would give it four stars,” Haines said. “I’m not sure it was as good as Lincoln. I thought Lincoln was a better film overall.”