In the hit TV series Homeland, Nicholas Brody bears the rank of Gunnery Sergeant on his service uniform but his dress blues show him to be only a Sergeant, and he is addressed throughout as "Sergeant" rather than "Gunnery Sergeant" (or "Gunny"). In the movie Argo, the U.S. embassy Marine guards are wearing Battle Dress Uniforms (BDU). BDUs were not introduced until the fall of 1981. Zero Dark Thirty's protagonist Maya repeatedly refers to "Pesh-awar," a city in Pakistan; its proper pronunciation is Pesh-a-war, something a CIA analyst working there certainly would know.
A self-admitted nerd-wonk, I'm addicted to good political fiction. Like many others, I'm glued to Homeland, and recently saw Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. One would think that, after two-and-a-half decades of coughing Pushtunistan dust, negotiating through SE Asian minefields, dodging Cuban agents, and suffering under life-sucking government bureaucracy, I'd prefer tango dancing or building a wine cellar or something else approaching normal. But I'm a writer who writes what he knows and what I know is anything but normal: tribal politics (American as well as foreign), intrigue, weapons, spies, and the arcane art of diplomacy.
I go to great lengths in my own books to get my facts right -- does the Rashid assault rifle use the standard AK 7.62mm round? (Yes). On what side street is Cuba's spy agency? (Calle 19). What is the name of the CIA's main training facility? (sorry, they made me take that one out - really!). I bring this anal-retentiveness along with a bag of popcorn with me to the cinema. I'm one of those insufferable types who'll keep a running commentary going while the show is on.
Anyway, to make the most impact on viewing audiences, movie producers need to get their facts straight. Taking dramatic license is fine. Making lots of factual errors is not. I wrote about this in my three-part series, Writing the National Security Thriller. Let's compare the three Hollywood productions in question:
In Argo, producer Ben Affleck has done a magnificent job of recreating a 1970s atmosphere, right down to borrowing footage of busy office scenes from All the President's Men to portray CIA headquarters and recreating Iranian uniforms from the period. I'd written previously about his accurate depiction of diplomats under siege and the tension of planning escape from a volatile revolutionary setting. He also captures well the bureaucratic tension in Washington as State Department and White House officials hesitate to give the green light for such a risky rescue operation. Affleck, on the other hand, has caught serious flak over his demeaning the central roles played by the Canadian, British, New Zealand and other governments in assisting the hostages. And he takes dramatic license in the totally fictional scenes of the hostages, under cover as Canadian film makers, touring a bazaar; and the white-knuckle airport getaway.
I was disappointed by the many factual errors in Zero Dark Thirty, which, I felt, detracted somewhat from an otherwise gripping production. Mispronouncing Peshawar is one of a number of basic errors that could easily have been avoided had the producers simply consulted some experts. They apparently did receive some CIA cooperation, a matter some senators have called to be investigated. The CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) tells CIA chief Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) that she was recruited right out of high school. Agency analysts and case officers are not recruited out of high school, and almost all have at least a B.A. degree. In a chase scene in "Pakistan," an Indian flag is clearly visible in the background, betraying the film location in Chandigarh, India. For some mysterious reason, they cast a Brit speaking UK English in the role of National Security advisor Thomas Donilon. The mistake that drew a big gaffaw from me was the Islamabad CIA station chief's sporting a CIA logo pin on his lapel like a bullseye over his heart. This little touch is just downright stupid. The COS's later sporting an American flag lapel pin, while not impossible, is highly unlikely. One just doesn't see this kind of patriotism-on-one's-sleeve affectation among career officials. And, of course, there is the controversy over whether torture was used to track down bin-Laden. CIA Director Morell stated, "That impression is false. We cannot allow a Hollywood film to cloud our memory." Former CIA counterterrorism officer Nada Bakos concluded, Zero Dark Thirty is "not accurate enough to resonate with my experiences as a CIA analyst and later, a targeting officer in the clandestine service."
With the exception of some dramatic license, Homeland displays the most care in adhering to real life intelligence and counterterrorism work, right down to the nuances of policies and regulations. Carrie (Claire Danes) conceals her bipolar disorder, including filching her meds rather than getting a doctor to prescribe them. Why? Because her employer likely would pull her clearances, a career death knell. This kind of thing really happens (see Running Amok: Mental Health in the U.S. Foreign Service). Saul's (Mandy Patinkin) wife splitting with him because his career consumes his life is very familiar to people who work in that business. The bureaucratic lingo is accurate and current. So is the attire, right down to Saul's department store officewear. The bureaucratic procedures, egos and dumbassedness are genuine. It is clear that this series's producers rely heavily on former CIA and military people as resources to get their story straight. On the other hand, a CIA officer (Carrie) carrying out a rogue surveillance operation against an American citizen (Brody) on American soil -- with her supervisor's assent, no less -- is simply unrealistic unless all concerned had no compunction about landing a long prison sentence. But, of the three thrillers, Homeland gets two thumbs up from this observer for authenticity and adherence to detail.
Verisimilitude is what the thriller writer should aim for when concocting a story, be it cinematic, television or literary. Say Pesh-awar enough times, wear a CIA logo pin, mix up uniforms and get the jargon wrong and you'll lose some respect among the cognoscenti at least. Get it right, and you've got a winner.
P.S. Hollywood producers: I'm available as an expert consultant at reasonable rates.
See also -
Embassy Attacks, Iran and Hollywood
Running Amok: Mental Health in the U.S. Foreign Service
Writing the National Security Thriller, Part I: Tips for the Lay Author
How True is Zero Dark Thirty? A Former Operative Weighs In