CHICAGO — Three films nominated for Best Picture at this weekend’s Academy Awards are based on actual events. All three received critical acclaim, even though the historical accuracy of each has been challenged.
“Zero Dark Thirty” was criticized for its depiction of the role of torture in the search for Osama bin Laden. “Lincoln,” the docudrama about the abolition of slavery, took certain liberties with the congressional vote over the 13th Amendment (despite the use of three historical advisers by director Steven Spielberg). Ben Affleck’s movie, “Argo,” tells how several Americans escaped from Tehran in 1979, and it too contains several fictional scenes.
Clearly, Hollywood history differs from historians’ history.
The Columbia University historian Eric Foner describes in an essay in the collection “Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies” how he was once asked to endorse a film’s historical accuracy: “I couldn’t do that because what I mean by accurate is not exactly the same thing as what they mean by accurate. I thought the film was accurate in a general way, but there were many historical inaccuracies in it.”
Still, Hollywood history is undeniably effective. The screenwriter William Goldman (“All The President’s Men”) once said that as far as movies are concerned, it is not important what is true; it is important what audiences accept as true. Today, schoolteachers often supplement history textbooks, sometimes replacing them completely, with films designed to “teach” history. Students — and filmgoers in general — enjoy polished, time-compressed productions chock full of drama and moral clarity. Voilà, the Titanic sinks just as James Cameron portrays it; Jim Lovell morphs into Tom Hanks navigating a crippled Apollo 13; and Malcolm X becomes Denzel Washington. Is this any different from Shakespeare’s fictional portrayal of real English kings?
Perhaps not, but there is a limit to Hollywood history. The problem comes when filmmakers claim that despite inaccuracies, their films capture historical truth. At that point, filmmaker and historian part ways. The screenwriter of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Boal, explained in an interview with The Wall Street Journal the liberties available to him: “I think it’s my right, by the way, if I firmly believe that Bin Laden was killed by aliens, to depict that. And I should be able to put on there, ‘This is 100 percent true and anyone who doubts it is themselves abducted by aliens’ … without a Senate investigation into where I got that notion. Right?”
There is a more serious potential problem with accepting Hollywood history. Filmmakers can alter historical “truth” not only for dramatic purposes but to propagandize. Significantly, three of the 20th century’s greatest films were overt political propaganda pieces based on actual events: D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “The Birth of a Nation” was a paean to the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan; Leni Reifenstahl’s 1935 “Triumph of the Will” celebrated Hitler and the Third Reich, and Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 “Battleship Potemkin” glorified an event presaging the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Historical truth or mass audience manipulation?
This year is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Later this year, there will undoubtedly be many showings of Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK,” one of cinema’s most effective — and most manipulative — historical depictions. In it, a miscast Kevin Costner playing real-life District Attorney Jim Garrison delivers an emotional final speech revealing a massive government conspiracy. In reality, Garrison’s “conspiracy” was laughed out of court in one day.
Employing rapid-cut montages, Stone invented fictional scenes, manipulated facts and created new footage resembling the original documentary footage that made it difficult for viewers to distinguish real from fake.
His conclusion in the movie, that a massive government conspiracy was responsible for Kennedy’s death, remains unsupported by facts and has been discredited by virtually every responsible historian. Yet none of this prevented Stone and his Time-Warner studio from distributing a book from the movie designed as a study guide for schools.
Another Columbia University historian, Mark Carnes, the editor of “Past Imperfect,” wrote: “Sometimes filmmakers, wholly smitten by their creations, proclaim them to be historically ‘accurate’ or ‘truthful,’ and many viewers presume them to be so. Viewers should neither accept such claims or dismiss them out of hand, but regard them as an invitation for further exploration.”
For the viewer trying to interpret the past, caveat emptor. Hollywood history should be only the first step, never the end of the journey.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here