There are memories and then there’s history. History is anything that happened before you were born; memories are what you remember.
I first grasped the distinction when my younger brother, five years my junior, was in college and told me that he was taking a course on the 1960s. I laughed out loud.
I was born in 1956 and absolutely remember the tumultuous years of that iconic decade, from the Freedom Marchers to the Kennedy assassinations to the Beatles to the anti-Vietnam protests. My brother, born in mid-1961, spent those years having his diapers changed, making mud pies and watching Underdog cartoons, none of which were covered in his ’60s course.
There are two movies in theaters now, both absolutely worth seeing, that illustrate the difference: Lincoln and Argo.
Lincoln is history. Argo depicts an era that I remember.
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's latest film, is a portrait of the last four months of the life of the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. It’s the waning days of the Civil War and Lincoln is determined to push through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery.
Essentially, Lincoln is a thriller focusing on the nitty-gritty of political procedure — not the usual fodder of a suspense film — but it sure works here. Will the president be able to round up the necessary votes? What’s driving him to do this? And what sort of low-down tactics, arm-twisting and favor-swapping will he have to employ to achieve his noble goal?
Not surprisingly, it is a very talky movie. But it’s pretty fascinating talk, coming as it does from the pen of Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Angels in America) turned Oscar-winning screenwriter (Munich). Kushner based his screenplay partly on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
It helps that Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor of uncommon talent, gives a performance of such warmth and humanity that you feel as if, just maybe, you’d gotten an actual glimpse of what the Illinois rail splitter may actually have been like. It’s one of the movie’s running jokes that Lincoln loved to tell folksy stories, often drawn from his early days as a traveling lawyer, to illustrate his points. Every time he launches into one, his associates roll their eyes.
Watching the film, I was reminded of when I was a kid and CBS had a TV series called You Are There, in which Walter Cronkite would introduce re-enactments of pivotal moments from history that had happened long before I was born (as in the 1940s and earlier). With Lincoln, darned if I didn’t feel as if I were there.
It’s a different story with Argo, Ben Affleck’s crackerjack thriller set during the Iran hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days by Iranian revolutionaries who had taken over the American Embassy in Tehran in late 1979. That I remember. It was on the front page daily, led TV newscasts, helped Ronald Reagan to win the presidential election in 1980 (defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter), and provided the impetus for the start of Ted Koppel’s 30-year run as the anchor of ABC’s Nightline.
Affleck, who directed and starred in the movie, has chosen to tell a sliver of the Iran hostage crisis story: a little-known episode about a wild-and-crazy CIA attempt to rescue six Americans who had managed to escape the embassy in Tehran during the takeover and secretly hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
Back in the United States, Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA expert in extracting people from dicey situations, concocts a radical rescue plan. He’ll pretend to be a Hollywood movie producer hoping to shoot a science-fiction film called Argo in Tehran and have the escaped Americans pose as members of his film crew.
This CIA operation actually happened, though the details were kept confidential at the time. Therefore, those of us who are old enough to vividly remember the Iran hostage crisis (not to mention the vintage ’70s hair-dos, facial hair and outfits in the movie) are still new to most of the specifics of the story told here.
It’s a terrific tale, one filled with both humor and tension. There are laughs aplenty as Argo satirizes Hollywood (Alan Arkin nearly steals the film as a cynical, veteran film producer who helps with the scheme) but, near the end, as the escape attempt reaches its climax, there’s nail-biting suspense.
The lesson to be learned from both films is that, whether set in the recent past or a more distant era, history can come alive when told with smarts, passion and solid filmmaking.
Which reminds me: Somewhere in a drawer, I still have my honors history thesis from my senior year in college. I wrote about press coverage of chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit during the 1907 trial of her husband, nutso millionaire Harry Thaw, for the murder of celebrity architect Stanford White. (Nesbitt was the Lindsey Lohan of her day.) My professor awarded me an A-, but added the comment, “While this is fascinating, I’m not sure it’s history.”
Maybe not, but it sure would make a great movie. Wait, it's already been done: Joan Collins played Nesbit in 1955’s The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing and Elizabeth McGovern did the same in 1981’s Ragtime. Sometimes, Hollywood — like history — repeats itself.