Disillusionment with Hollywood came in my teens. Like millions of filmgoers I had been thrilled by Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, which told the often harrowing story of the brutal imprisonment of Billy Hayes by the Turkish authorities after he was convicted of trying to smuggle hashish out of the country. I was dimly aware when I saw the film that the Turkish authorities were aggrieved but assumed this was standard propaganda from an oppressive and backward state.
Then I read Hayes’ own account of his ordeal, on which the film was based.
No one could deny that he had a hard time but the degree of license taken by Parker is illustrated in the contrast between the real and the filmic last days of Hayes’ imprisonment. In the film a bedraggled half dead Hayes escapes into the city from his rat infested dungeon hellhole after – as I recall – a violent confrontation with the most sadistic of his jailers. In reality, Hayes achieved freedom by hiding in a fishing boat which was leaving the island open prison on which he was spending the latter days of his sentence. No wonder the Turks – generally presented in the film as sweaty, corpulent sadists – were angry.
I was reminded of my disillusionment reading the adverse commentary on the film Argo. My disappointment with Ben Affleck’s award winning blockbuster was increased further by the contrast with a genuinely wonderful political thriller, Pablo Lorrain’s ‘No’ which tells the story of the campaign to stop General Pinochet winning a referendum which would have given the dictator a further period in control of Chile.
Yet ‘No’ too has been the subject of criticism. Its focus on the marketing campaign has been attacked for failing to recognise the importance of grass roots efforts such as voter registration. I don’t know enough about Chile to make an informed judgement on ‘No’s veracity, but in viewing the films and reading the critiques, there is to my mind a fundamental distinction.
‘No’ has subtlety and complexity. We can understand the ambivalence that Chile’s squabbling progressive parties felt at using a commercial approach to their campaign. We want our hero to win but there is pathos in his victory. Whether his strategy merely popularised the struggle or in some way cheapened it, is a question the director trusts us to reflect upon.
Argo by contrast knows what we want to believe (that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys and the good guys win) and then helps us believe it by weaving what is basically a fictional tale. ‘No’ not only explores the ambiguous line between populism and cynicism but as a film it manages to stay on the right side of that line. Argo never even tries.
This may all sound very subjective but surely there are objective distinctions to be drawn between, on the one hand, looking at actual events from a particular angle and inventing plausible scenes which illustrate genuine issues and, on the other, inventing history simply so that a story can be crowd pleasing while trying to gain unmerited credibility through claiming the story is based on true events?
If a distinction between populism and cynicism can be true of films, can it also be true of political speeches? I have no problem with well-intentioned populism. If David Cameron wants to package up a series of measures (some which have already happened, some which are happening anyway and some which might never happen) into something which looks like he is taking tough action on immigration, then, whether or not such an endeavour succeeds, that’s politics, which is, in part about communicating with the public and showing you take their concerns seriously. After all, no one is hurt if the public accepts a slightly spun package to amount to more than it actually contains.
But can the same tolerance be shown to another aspect of the speech? In several areas – the overall scale of migrant benefit claiming, the use of the NHS by illegal immigrants, and the scale of immigrant take-up of social housing - there was an apparently deliberate attempt to say that the problems caused by immigrants are worse than they actually are. A speech which claimed to have the purpose of reassurance probably increased tension and resentment. Unlike a bit of creative policy packaging, such manipulation may have victims – risking making immigrants feel like pariahs and legitimising anti-foreigner sentiment.
It is not as easy to make a commercially successful film while sticking reasonably faithfully to the messy and prosaic nature of reality as it is to change the facts to fit the formula of a winning plot. It is not as easy to generate headlines and voter support by describing a complex picture as it is by being alarmist and confirming false assumptions. Perhaps taking the hard road is respectively what distinguishes the film maker from the creative artist and the politician from the statesman.
When it comes to political communication I have a tendency to be unduly pious, generally wanting politicians to be more candid and brave and arguing, without any real foundation, that ultimately such an approach will prove to be popular. Perhaps it’s why I could never make it as a politician myself and why many former colleagues found me unrealistic at best and more often a self-righteous bore.
As I lost argument after argument l searched for a clear and defensible distinction between legitimate vote winning and meretricious pandering to prejudice. Perhaps - although far too late - in the contrast between Argo and No I have found the distinction I needed.