In Land of the Hobbit, Scowls Over Ben Affleck's 'Argo'
History keeps catching up with Ben Affleck and "Argo," his Oscar-winning film about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. New Zealand's Parliament passed a resolution today "expressing regret" that the film engaged in what Winston Peters, leader of the New Zealand First party and a former foreign minister, called a "gross misrepresentation" of the role his country's diplomats played in the crisis.
At one point in the film, a CIA agent describing the getaway by six U.S. hostages says, "the Brits turned them away, Kiwis turned them away. The Canadians took them in."
In historical fact, the New Zealanders hardly abandoned the Yanks. New Zealand ambassador Chris Beeby and his second secretary Richard Sewell visited the Americans while they were in hiding and had prepared another property for them to move to if need be. Since Iran was then the biggest buyer of New Zealand lamb -- in October 1979, one month before the hostages were seized, New Zealand's Meat Producers Board had scored a four-year contract to export 200,000 tons to Iran -- the Kiwis had some, um, serious skin in the game.
Affleck knew he had his facts wrong on New Zealand (and the U.K., but that's another story), and said in an interview last year that he "struggled with this long and hard." And, as he put it in a post-Oscar interview, "I love New Zealand and New Zealanders."
Setting aside such heartfelt sentiment, today's resolution represents more than the usual clash between Clio, the muse of history, and Oscar, the muse of Hollywood. It is also an easy political gambit by Peters, a member of the opposition, who later said that Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully "were too scared to front up to Hollywood."
Many New Zealanders are still rubbed raw by their government's truckling to Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and director Peter Jackson, who muttered about moving production of "The Hobbit" elsewhere unless they were granted subsidies and lighter labor laws. They were also rankled by New Zealand's cooperation with a U.S. investigation into Kim Dotcom, the boss of the file-sharing site Megaupload.com, for Web piracy -- including a controversial effort by New Zealand's spy agency to intercept Dotcom's communications. And let's just say that relations between New Zealand and the U.S. are tinged these days by more than a bit of David versus Goliath.
In fact, if Affleck wants to rehabilitate his rep in the antipodes, I've got a modest proposal: He should make his next thriller about New Zealand's decision in 1984 to ban access to its ports by nuclear-armed or nuclear-propelled vessels, thereby casting a pall on the U.S.-New Zealand alliance that has yet to fully dissipate. Plucky Kiwis, the U.S. Navy, Ronald Reagan, the Cold War -- just think of the possibilities for dramatic license!
(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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