Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What is the Responsibility of Movie Producers to Accurately Represent Historical Events?

Over the weekend, before I became bogged down in working on my taxes, I had a chance to watch the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty focused on the CIA's development of intelligence that resulted in the successful killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Overall, it was a pretty good movie, a little slow at first, but it got better when it got away from showing the interrogation "techniques" used to extract information from detainee.   I am not terribly offended by terrorists being tortured for information.  I just find watching it gets boring after awhile.

Of course, in such a historically based movie it is inevitable that a producer will invent dialogue, scenes, and maybe even a few minor characters.   But should a movie about history, simply make up facts and major characters?  I say "no."  When a producer chooses to do a movie about an historical event, he or she has a responsibility to get the history right.  Any way you dress it up, people are going to watch that movie and accept what is depicted as true.  For many people that movie is the only source of information about that subject.

After watching Zero Dark Thirty, I did what I normally do with historically-based movies and researched the topic to see what  inaccuracies there are in the film.  Certainly the movie's central character, a female CIA operative cast as a heroine who fought almost single-handily against bureaucrats and the Obama administration to pursue her theory about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, makes for a good movie, but it is not based on reality.  There were hundreds of agents who aggressively pursued the theory.

A couple months ago Cory Franklin wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about this subject:
“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. 
Let me just stop here for a second.  There were a ton of historical inaccuracies in the Lincoln movie, not just the congressional vote depicted in the flick.   (Haven't seen Argo yet.)  The worst thing though was the political correctness that dominated the movie leading to hokey scenes like the opening one with three black union soldiers repeating the Gettysburg Address to the President, with the finally one remaining behind to lecture the President of the United States about civil rights.   Yeah right.

Back to the Franklin piece:
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. VoilĂ , 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? 


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. 

While Franklin offers good advice, I return to he responsibility of the movie producer.  If their historically-based movie becomes a blockbuster, what they depict in that movie will become the historical record of that event for many people. Movie producers do have a responsibility to get that history correct.    The claim that they need to invent an alternative depiction of events to make history "dramatic" doesn't wash with me.  History is plenty dramatic and depiction of history makes for a fine movie if the boring parts are edited out.

I think it is laziness.  Rather than do the work required to depict history accurately and dramatically, movie producers find it easier to just make stuff up.  Those of us who go to watch a movie about history because we love history, deserve better.


Flogger said...

I find it the whole idea of Americans engaging in torture to be disgusting. At some point the vast majority of people will "confess" just to stop the torture. Torture was act Stalin, the Japanese or Nazis did in WW 2. We learned of the brainwashing techniques the North Koreans, and Chinese did to our POWs during the Korean War. Later the North Vietnamese tortured our POWs.

Back then we as Americans could be outraged at torture. We were better people. Sadly this is no longer the case, brutality by Americans and extraordinary rendition it seems is now accepted by too many people.

I thought one of the best historical movies was Tora, Tora, Tora.

I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in state of shock. The History books I had in school just glossed over Indian Wars, except for Custer's defeat.

Hollywood has always played fast and loose with history. It is too bad so many Americans think these movies are factual.

Ellen said...

As an historian, I must tell you: there is no way "to accurately represent historical events".

It is impossible to recreate an event in all its complexity from all points of view.

We all know of "facts" that were later disproven by new evidence, reports of events that were distorted to make one person or one "side" appear "better", and so on.

Certainly, Hollywood can't perform the impossible.

Downtown Indy said...

It's the responsibility of the moviegoers to keep in mind they are watching entertainment, not an academician's thesis.