Episode 2: How did we get here?

Episode Two Podcast

Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today. 

My name is Lia Paradis

And my name is Brian Crim. 

We’re historians who watch a lot of movies and TV.  And whenever stuff is set in the past, we can’t help but notice that whatever is going on when the film was made seems to show up on the screen too. That’s why we borrowed a line from Napoleon for the title of our podcast – he complained that the world wouldn’t really know his story because his enemies would tell lies about him. But we’re always trying to make sense of our world by telling versions of history that make the most sense or offer the most comfort. Our own lies agreed upon. 

So Napoleon was right, but also a narcissist. (He wasn’t short, by the way. That was also one of those lies.) 

We assume that there are a lot of people who love TV and movies, and history, just like us, and we’ve created this podcast with those people in mind. Sometimes the connections between the history and the here and now can be fairly obvious. But a lot of it goes unnoticed or misunderstood and this is where we come in. We hope to entertain and inform, while we also amuse ourselves. 

In the aftermath of 9/11, many Americans were asking – how did we get here? Why did so many people, particularly in the Middle East, think of America as the evil empire? Did ‘we’ deserve this? Many people couldn’t understand where the hatred of America came from. And the methods of the terrorists seemed to come out of nowhere.  Into the breach step Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, and Ben Affleck. Spielberg’s Munich (2005), Mike Nichols’s Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), and Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012) all take up these questions, in one form or another. 

All three of these movies challenged two established stories that Americans told themselves after 9/11 – that the United States was an innocent victim of terrorist violence that really came out of nowhere, and that revenge for the attacks would be a productive use of American might.

We’ll start, as always, with a short recap of the plots:

Munich is directed by Spielberg and written by long-time collaborator Tony Kushner along with Eric Roth and George Jonas, author of Vengeance, the book inspiring the story. The cast is impressive, international. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarian Hinds, Geoffrey Rush,and Mathieu Almeric, among others.

Munich is the story of the secret Israeli operation targeting eleven PLO operatives linked to the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes. It opens with the events of the hostage taking, but cuts away before the tragic end point, which Spielberg returns to later in the film. 

We are then introduced to Eric Bana’s character, Avner Kaufman, whose book the movie is based on. Mossad asks him to quit so that they can have deniability while joins a shadow group of assassins brought together from the Jewish diaspora – one is Belgian, another South African, and so on. Their handler, played by Jeffrey Rush, gives them the targets.  

The mission takes them all over Europe and even Lebanon, drawing them into the shadowy world of Euroterrorism and Cold War shenanigans. Each of the increasingly gruesome assassinations also cause increasing civilian collateral damage. In between these hits, Avner and his colleagues debate the morality and perhaps more importantly, the effectiveness of their actions. Every PLO casualty seems to result in an even more extreme replacement. Over time, other members of the group are killed. It also becomes clear that various governments have their own agendas, in some cases thwarting the assassination attempts – a Mossad target might also be a CIA asset. 

Avner starts to wonder if he’s being used to kill targets that have nothing to do with Munich. If so, does that make him just a cold-blooded assassin instead of a righteous avenger? 

After a series of setbacks, Avner abandons the mission to be with his family in Brooklyn, seemingly turning his back on the “eye for an eye” mentality of fighting terrorism. The final exchange between Avner and his handler on a park bench in New York is set against the backdrop of the World Trade towers. 

Let’s listen to a clip of Avner, when the Israeli is on the job, pretending to be a German radical to get close to his target. He is exchanging perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict with an unsuspecting PLO member named Ali.  

Ali is preaching national liberation ideology, mocking the “Reds international revolution” as a luxury only those with a home can affort. It is a good distillation of the Palestinian perspective and a reminder that Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine believed similar things during their quest for national liberation.

Argo is directed by Ben Affleck and written by Chris Terrio and based on the book The Master of Disguise by Tony Mendez, the CIA officer portrayed by Affleck. It’s produced by Affleck, Grant Heslov and George Clooney and  The cast also includes some wonderful performances by Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Bryan Cranston and a host of other notable faces and names. Set in the chaotic months of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent storming of the US embassy, Argo is the story of the daring and improbable rescue of six American embassy officials forced to hide in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. 

Like Spielberg, Affleck feels the need to provide a quick review of the historical background. Affleck is very explicit about the causes of the events his audience is about to see unfold. Let’s take a listen to that now.  

The live action then begins with the day that the student protesters breach the outer walls of the American Embassy compound and take it over, starting the 444 days of the the American Hostage Crisis. A few lowly functionaries, working in the passport and visa building, are able to escape out a door to the street because their building has exterior access for Iranians who come applying for visas. They eventually take shelter in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador

In Washington, government and intelligence officials start trying to figure out how to get them out. After a lot of back and forth, trying to figure out the least worst idea, Mendez manages to convince his superiors that the only viable plan is to pose as the a Canadian production team for a fake science fiction film called Argo and fly out of Tehran International Airport. 

John Goodman, playing a special effects guy who’s worked with Mendez before, recruits Alan Arkin, a director, to pretend he’s making the movie. The rest of the film flips back and forth between Hollywood where the set-up is underway, and Tehran, where Mendez tries to get buy in from the humble office workers who suddenly have to learn cover stories and are scared to death. 

Meanwhile, the radical, paranoid phase of the revolution is raging outside the Canadian Residence gates. And the ineffectual officials in Washington keep wanting to throw in the towel and just abandon the whole thing. 

The uncertainty – of course – goes down to the wire, as Mendez  forces his superiors’ hand by going ahead with the exfiltration and the final pieces of the cover story come through just as he is leading the six embassy workers through Tehran airport. The plane takes off despite revolutionary guards speeding down the runway trying to overtake the plane. The captain announces when they clear Iranian airspace and they are free. 

The film ends with comparison photos of the real events and people so that the audience can appreciate Affleck’s attention to detail and accuracy and be reminded that, however improbable it seems, this caper really happened. 

Among other things, Munich and Argo both grapple with the legacy of past events, but neither do it as explicitly as our third movie, Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s War is loaded with big names and talent. Directed by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin, CWW is based on the book of the same name by veteran CBS journalist George Crile. The cast is amazing – Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Ned Beatty, Rizwan Manji, Om Puri as Zia, and even John Slattery, who plays a Roger Sterling type of character, but not nearly as likeable. The film is the story of how an obscure Texas congressman spearheaded the now famous, or infamous effort to arm Afghan rebels in their bloody war with the Soviet Union. The film has Sorkin’s familiar blend of humor, idealism, and optimism about what government can accomplish. However, CWW is also pretty direct about America’s standard operation procedure of breaking things without cleaning them up. 

It opens with Hanks, as Wilson, naked in a hot tub with a friend and a few buxom ‘starlets’. Wilson, sees coverage of the Afghan War on a bar TV and is distracted. This movie doesn’t start with a history lesson for its viewers. We start out as ignorant as Wilson. He becomes intrigued by what is developing in Afghanistan. A wealthy, rabidly anti-Communist, evangelical, Texas socialite, and sometimes lover of Good Time Charlie, named Joanne Herring, seizes on his interest because she wants to help the Afghans eject the godless communists. 

And Charlie has the luck to get a tenacious, effective, and unorthodox CIA agent answer his request for an intelligence briefing on the matter. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gust Avracotos is as much an outsider to this CIA as Tony Mendez is to Argo’s. 

The rest of the movie follows Wilson, Herring, and Avracotos, as they quietly procure the funding for a covert war. This is enabled by Wilson’s committee memberships on the kinds of classified, military defense sub-committees that don’t have to disclose their budgets or their appropriation decisions. Once in possession of the funds, Wilson and Avracotos find the appropriately apolitical arms dealers who will provide the weapons that the Afghans need to shoot down Soviet air power. 

The US aid budget for Afghanistan goes from 5 million dollars to 2 billion dollars. But once the war is won, the USSR retreats and collapses, and the US loses interest fast. Wilson can’t even get those same committees to keep enough funding to build the Afghans some schools. But all those weapons are still there – left behind for another fight. The audience knows that Usama Bin Laden will find refuge in the failed state, and now also knows that the mujahadeen Wilson helped arm will eventually become both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance who resisted them. 

For all its humor and feel good moments, CWW is best summed up by Charlie Wilson’s own quote ending the film: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world . . . and then we fucked up the end game.”

Let’s listen to Gust warning Charlie about what’s to come. We know because we are living with the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan and always finding military solutions to humanitarian problems. 

In each episode, we’ll remind listeners what was going on when these writers, directors and producers decided to make these movies. Again, the way we’ve summarized the films has probably provided some of that review already. 

For this episode, we have two different moments to describe, although they are definitely related. In 2004, CBS news got a hold of photos that showed evidence that US soldiers were torturing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Soon after, the first of a series of ‘torture memos’s was leaked showing that as early as 2002 the administration was seeking legal justification for the use of torture. Although Abu Ghraib was treated as an outlier event, it turned attention to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – a euphemism for torture – and the existence of black ops sites around the world where US operatives acted outside US and international law. 

Let’s play a CBS news clip detailing the controversy surrounding the revelation Abu Ghraib was actually the result of US policy

The prison at Guantanamo Bay was also under increasing scrutiny, as was the civilian kill rate in both Iraq and Afghanistan. All in all, in Bush’s second term, there was a lot of discussion about, and discomfort with, America’s abandonment of its own principles – and the law – in the name of national security.  

Here’s a clip from Al Jazeera about the Kafkaesque nightmare that is Gitmo

Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan raged on. And the weapons used against American forces were often American weapons, given to the Afghans two decades earlier when the USSR occupied the country. It never went well when foreigners invaded Afghanistan. And by 2007, when Charlie Wilson’s War came out, more and more people were asking why Afghanistan had been under the control of the Taliban to begin with, and why the Taliban was shooting American soldiers with American guns. 

Aaron Sorkin was his usual precise self in the script for Charlie Wilson’s War when he had the CIA Aghan desk highlight the contributions of Ahmad Massoud and the forces later known as the Northern Alliance. Massoud was the most effective mujahideen leader against the Soviets and later opposed the Taliban. Al Qaeda, with Taliban support, assassinated Massoud two days before 9/11 to prepare for the storm to come after the attack. Let’s get some background on Massoud:

So you can see how Sorkin  is drawing a direct link between what the US did then, what happened on 9/11, and what the situation was in Afghanistan when the movie was made.

Jumping forward a few years, a crisis in the already bad relationship between the US, Europe, and Iran could seen to be out of the blue for someone who wasn’t around and aware during the Carter/ Reagan years.  And by 2011, tensions between the US and Iran were very high. Populist hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was president from 2005-2013, consolidated his power by stoking anti-American, anti-Israel sentiment and ramping up Iran’s nuclear program. Iran Hawks in the US were advocating an invasion, and, if you look at a map, you can see why Iran would not be paranoid to consider that a strong possibility. But the US and Israel’s most effective operation was non-military – releasing a worm into Iran’s nuclear computer system. So a non-violent solution to a violent threat was yet another opportunity for the West to tsk tsk the emotional Other. And, while Argo would have been in production long before this happened, in November 2011, Iranian student protesters stormed the British Embassy in Tehran in retaliation for sanctions tied to Iran nuclear program. 

So again, what are those stories that Americans told themselves after 9/11 that these three movies are challenging?

Well, the first is that the United States was an innocent victim of terrorist violence that really came out of nowhere. Tied to that was the public perception that this was a uniquely violent moment. 

That story then led to another one: that revenge for the attacks would be a productive use of American might – that a “war on terror” one might call it – was warranted and would be successful. 

In their own way the three films suggest that American ignorance about other cultures leads to bad policy. Munich is about an Israeli operation, but the audience is American and while Spielberg gives a nod to the Palestinian perspective it certainly falls short of acknoweding decades of dehumanization just as Affleck can’t possibly explain the brutality of the Shah’s regime. I think Charlie Wilson’s War is pretty good at showing the Afghans were nothing more than pawns in the Cold War, however.

Steven Spielberg did a lot of press for Munich in which he distinguished between the PLO and Euroterrorism of the 70s with the mass casualty apocalyptic ends of Al Qaeda.  There is no equivalence, but Spielberg understands that the essence of terrorism in the modern age is spectacle. The 1972 olympic massacre and 9/11 were designed to achieve maximum terror in a global audience. Terrorism is symbolic political violence, and even if the motives and methods have changed, the visual component is the same.

 The 1979 Iranian revolution and the storming of the US embassy cannot be classified as terrorism, but the spectacle was equally momentous. Both Argo and Munich want to remind us of the power of the moving image to instill fear, prompt action and counteraction.  

Charlie Wilson’s War reminds American audiences that Afghanistan was once synonymous with a celebrated Cold War victory, perhaps the death blow to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. This same victory laid the groundwork for the Taliban’s control over the country and Al Qaeda’s safe haven in the same mountains the mujahadeen used to torment Soviet occupiers. 

The three films are produced in the wake of 9/11 and the eternal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were commercial and critical successes, but beneath the A-list casts and directors is a warning – actions have consequences, sometimes lasting decades. I think all three movies critique the cycle of violence a terrorist act and the counter-terrorist response perpetuates.

Argo and Charlie Wilson’s War highlight the long legacy of covert operations that reinforce hatred of US. Argo reveals how one  covert action, the 1953 coup empowering the Shah of Iran, requires the wacky rescue mission at the heart of the film. 

One thing we’ve noticed is how all three movies are weirdly pro-clandestine services and even off the books clandestine actions. These liberal directors, writers and producers  still love a good caper, even though the caper is covert, unsanctioned, and unconstitutional. 

But in another way, these movies portray establishment agency functionaries as either incompetent or elitist, or both – with the elitism causing the incompetence. 

In Argo and Charlie Wilson’s War we have working class outsiders taking on the old elite in the CIA, proving they more than belong there. Here’s Affleck’s Mendez trying to convince his charges to trust him.

And here’s Gus chewing out his boss, who doesn’t even think he’s really an American.

Let’s end with a quote from Spielberg from a press interview about Munich. Whatever you think of Spielberg perhaps being safe, predictable, technically accomplished but often not necessarily deep or reflective, Munich is interesting for its moral ambiguity. I recommend watching it with his remake of War of the Worlds, which also came out in 2005 and honestly has more 9/11 imagery in than even Munich. Unlike all his other science fiction films, it is darker, choppy, jarring at times. As Spielberg says, ‘In the shadow of 9/11 there is a relevance to how we are all so unsettled in our feelings about our collective futures.’

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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