Six American embassy workers and their CIA handler flee revolutionary Iran in a white-knuckle airplane getaway as pursuing soldiers fire at them from the tarmac. Two Connecticut congressmen in 1865 Washington vote against passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery. A CIA black-ops team softens up a suspected terrorist with waterboarding, beatings, and sleep deprivation until he gives them a crucial lead to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
What do these three scenes have in common? First, none of them happened. (In the case of the third item, the CIA has publicly challenged the film’s depiction of events, which you can take with or without a grain of salt depending on your trust of secretive government bureaus.) Second, each occurs in a film that may win tonight’s Oscar for best picture of 2012. Should there be a connection? Should a movie be rewarded — or, conversely, punished — for fudging the truth?
Notions of fidelity in storytelling are on the front burner this year as never before, with pundits and moviegoers hashing out the niceties. The controversy over the interrogation scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty” is well documented, but “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner has also been called upon to defend his dramatic distortions after taking a pasting in the press from US Representative Joe Courtney, Democrat of Connecticut. “Argo” director Ben Affleck “rewrites history” according to the headline of a Canadian magazine article condemning the movie’s downplaying of the role played by ambassador Ken Taylor. Quentin Tarantino takes lumps over the historical accuracy of the N-word in “Django Unchained.” Even that sweet little art-house fable “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been pilloried for romanticizing poverty and reviving pickaninny stereotypes.
The din has only grown louder as the Oscars have neared, and for good reason: Much as we mock them, the Academy Awards remain our popular culture’s final seal of approval, a unit of perceived value that means profit in Hollywood and lasting respect everywhere else. An uneasy sense persists that once a movie wins best picture, it is enshrined as a classic — and so are its fibs.
Still, it bears asking: Why now? “Lawrence of Arabia” (best picture, 1962) is riddled with historical errors in the name of drama. In the case of “Titanic” (best picture, 1997), there’s no documented evidence that White Star employees on the sinking ship deliberately locked steerage passengers behind steel gates to prevent them from getting to the lifeboats, as James Cameron would have us believe. The London Sunday Times once ranked 1995 winner “Braveheart” second on a list of the 10 most historically inaccurate films of all time. And let’s not even get started on “Gone with the Wind.” Heck, let’s not get started on Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”
The proliferation of media outlets and easily accessed online information is responsible for much of the new controversy: Facts (and factoids) are easier to get at than ever. A recent increase in the number of best picture nominees means an increase in the number of targets. Yet this year’s debate over truth and truthiness also goes right to the heart of the ways media and history play off each other. Indeed, at issue is the very definition of cinema itself and its relationship to the real world as we perceive and remember it. The argument is ultimately about whether a movie is a mirror to reality or a painting of it, and consequently about what responsibilities that movie has to the ideas and people it represents.
In one corner are the filmmakers — the writers and directors and actors — who claim creative license, the freedom to shape, as an essential component of their craft. In the other are the fact police, who fear that the most popular and/or widely disseminated version of history will become the prevailing one. The sticky point is that both sides have their legitimate defenses and misperceptions.
Let’s take Kushner’s futzing around with the congressional record in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” The two fictional Connecticut representatives who vote against the amendment are in the screenplay, Kushner has said, because he wanted to ramp up suspense in the early stages of the roll call, which in the film proceeds alphabetically according to state. In reality, the vote (which included yeas from all four of Connecticut’s representatives) went alphabetically by congressman, regardless of state. But the “Lincoln” team didn’t think that a barrage of random names gave the audience enough “place holders” (Kushner’s phrase) to sustain their interest in the scene.Continued...