March 19, 2019

Hollywood’s history lesson: What counts when truth gets in the way

The year is 2063. In a Los Angeles classroom, a group of history students awaits the day’s lesson on the Civil War period. The teacher announces that instead of reading from a textbook, the class will watch the movie “Lincoln,” by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. The lights dim, a calm descends and a 13-inch transparent, retractable screen emerges from each student’s desk. With one touch, the ancient myth of a president who lived two centuries prior comes streaming to vivid life.  

Over in an adjacent, upper-school building, 10th-graders are studying the more recent history of the United States’ War on Terror. The teacher announces that to supplement their reading of “The 9/11 Commission Report,” they are going to watch the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. 

The rest, as they say, is history. 

Or is it? What sense might the students get of the time in which these films were set, or of when they were made? What social or political values will they glean from those narratives? In choosing to show “Lincoln,” certainly the first history teacher had more in mind than a basic lesson on the voting records of a 19th century Congress. Surely Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), who, way back in 2013, called on Spielberg to correct an error that put his state on the wrong side of the slavery vote, would agree with that. Well, one can only hope.

Although opinions will inevitably vary as to the historical value of these films — or any film, for that matter — there is little doubt that the popularity of Hollywood movies can leave an indelible imprint on our understanding of history. It is probably already true that more Americans have seen Spielberg’s fictionalized “Lincoln” than read the Doris Kearns Goodwin biography upon which it is based. If this indicates the impoverishment of our culture, it is still a truth. But it is the  “truth” in fiction that has prompted a wave of persnickety bickering around many of this year’s Oscar contenders. It’s an anxiety that is no doubt tied to the power of the historical film. 

During a year in which the only shared theme among Oscar contenders is a concern with the attributes of history — both distant and contemporary, and the individuals (“Lincoln”), events (“Argo”), settings (“Django Unchained”) and issues of our time (“Zero Dark Thirty”) — parsing how Hollywood marks the historical record seems a worthy exercise. Over the past few months, an Oscar-campaign drama has played out among filmmakers and politicians, artists and philosophers over the historical value of this season’s spate of movies. Public consternation has focused on an almost neurotic obsession with factual accuracy, which, at least for some, seems like the silliest debate.

“Using movies to learn your history is a disastrous course,” New Republic film critic and historian David Thomson told me during an interview. “But we’ve all done it.” 

Historian Robert Rosenstone has called learning history from movies a sign of a “postliterate” age, a time when “people can read, but won’t.” In an essay for Harvard University Press published in 1995, Rosenstone explained why historians distrust the historical film: “Films are inaccurate,” he wrote. “They distort the past. They fictionalize, trivialize, and romanticize people, events, and movements. They falsify history.”  

But academics’ discomfort with Hollywood’s hold on the popular imagination likely stems from anxiety about their own lack of control. Who are the real custodians and transmitters of history? In our time, that privilege seems to rest with the greatest storytellers, the ones who can hold our spirits captive through the sheer power of their gifts. This is as true of Hollywood writers and directors as it is of a biographer like Robert Caro, whose much-lauded biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson provide both a fount of data and an abundance of drama. The problem with Hollywood, of course, is that it is bound by a different set of formal and practical constraints than written history. 

For one, “they’re there to make entertainment; they’re there to make money,” Thomson said. “And most of the time, they will use what they think are the facts and turn them into the best dramatic advantage they can think of.” 

When Courtney accused playwright and “Lincoln” scribe Tony Kushner of botching Connecticut’s voting record on the 13th Amendment, Kushner took to the Wall Street Journal to admit his error but defend his decision. “These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote,” Kushner explained. “The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell.” 

Kushner went on to justify his position by revealing his personal writing criteria, one that distinguishes between history and historical drama.

“Here’s my rule,” Kushner wrote. “Ask yourself, ‘Did this thing happen?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s historical. Then ask, ‘Did this thing happen precisely this way?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s history; if the answer is no, not precisely this way, then it’s historical drama.”

That facts often get kicked to the curb for the sake of a sexier story was best expressed in John Ford’s 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In one of its final scenes, a newspaper publisher and editor famously insists, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” An apt mantra for Hollywood, it suggests a discomfiting reality: that the public has a larger appetite for myth and fantasy than for truth. Truth, after all, is stranger than fiction — and proof that even a false version of events can gain ready acceptance.

It is somewhat peculiar, though, to say nothing of a minor hypocrisy, that the same artists who so easily enjoy the stature a historical movie affords will not hesitate to cherry-pick history. As Patrick Goldstein, former entertainment columnist for the Los Angeles Times put it to me: “The same filmmakers who will go to such exquisite lengths to have the costumes correct, the production design accurate, the cars and clothes and everything else historically perfect, when it comes to story, they go ‘Oh, well, I had to condense it because the Connecticut lawmakers didn’t fit the story.’ ” 

Filmmakers try to have it both ways, Goldstein complained. They want the credibility of facts and the license for legend. “They do all this enormous research to make sure that the movie is accurate, then they go ahead and say, ‘Oh yeah, but’ when somebody calls them on it. That’s when I part company. Lots of filmmakers tell great stories and use history as a launching pad the same way Philip Roth does in his novels, but Roth would never dream of saying, ‘My novels would stand up to any historian’s criticisms.’ He’s a novelist.”

This year, criticism has been lobbed primarily at “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both of which are proudly presented historical movies. It was only after public discussion began that they sought to cover their tracks with caveats. In the case of “Zero Dark Thirty,” which opens with a long, unsparing torture scene, the implication is that torture played a role in intelligence gathering during the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. Whether or not this is really true (the veracity of this claim is still being debated among members of the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee, senior White House officials and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta), the filmmakers have coolly demurred from confirming the film’s basic premise. “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge,” director Kathryn Bigelow told the New Yorker last December. “I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.” 

“That’s absolute nonsense,” Thomson told me. “They want to use torture in the film for its dramatic values and, equally, they want to sit on the fence and say, ‘Well, no, no, no; we weren’t saying that the CIA really used torture — it’s all fabricated.’ ”

According to Rosenstone, a California Institute of Technology emeritus history professor, a historical film must present a moral argument. In crafting a history-based narrative, “You’re faced with an infinity of details, and at some point you have to cut them off and say these are the ones that I think are important. Well, how are you making that choice? You’re making a choice to give a certain set of political, philosophical and moral beliefs about what’s important.” 

Even the most rigorously researched histories are vulnerable to dispute. “All history is debatable, the books as well,” he told me. “You have to choose. And filmmakers have to do the same thing.”

“Argo,” a story of the rescue of American hostages during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, has suffered far fewer indictments over its reliability than “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark.” “It was an entertainment from the minute it started to the minute it ended,” Goldstein said. “There was nothing about the tone or style of filmmaking that led me to believe it was a serious historical tract. It allowed me as a viewer to say ‘I’m on a ride.’ ” 

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in “Argo.”  Photo by Claire Folger/© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

But where its history is concerned, “Argo” has been bolstered by a vigorous speaking campaign undertaken by retired CIA operative Tony Mendez, the inspiration for the character played by Ben Affleck, which has provided the film with a certain authenticity (and likely added to its acclaim). At the same time, critics and historians agree that there can be a distinction between factual accuracy and truth: Take “Argo’s” climactic, final airport scene. As the hostages make their escape, they encounter a series of hair-raising attempts to thwart their passage, which climaxes with a heart-pounding chase sequence as their plane is pursued down the runway — none of which actually occurred. 

“The end is apparently completely preposterous,” Goldstein said. Yet the dramatic tension of the final scenes serve a deeper truth: that a daring agent with a dumb plan actually did rescue six American hostages  from behind enemy lines.

Even the most devoted historians acknowledge that history concerns more than the accumulation of data. “The accuracy, the individual details and facts of history are not what history is about,” Rosenstone said. “One of the greatest works of history, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ ” — the 18th century work by English historian Edward Gibbon — “is riddled with errors. The issue we should be talking about is the overall portrait these films give of a period, even though particular details may be wrong.” “Lincoln,” then, finds historical value in its “fascinating portrait of political maneuvering; and how, behind our idealistic visions [of democracy] also lies this system that we have to work through.”

The application of “Lincoln’s” themes to our present experience bespeaks the notion that all film is essentially a time capsule. As Thomson put it, “If you want to know what 1939 felt like, the movies of 1939 are valuable.” The “history” films of our day may tell us more about the time in which they were made than the time they seek to explore. 

“In a general sense, it is always true that history serves the present,” Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman said during an interview. “The historian is choosing and arranging and interpreting from the perspective of the time in which [their work is] written. ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Django,’ to a degree, are movies that clearly come out of Obama’s first term, and that’s how they’ll be seen ultimately; as certain things which came to the fore during Obama’s presidency that the American people had to chew on — issues of race and the history of race as well as presidential power and greatness are sort of rehearsed in these movies. 

“Our Lincoln” – the one played by Daniel Day-Lewis — Hoberman added, “is not the same Lincoln of 1940, when [Raymond Massey] played him.”

Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Photo by Jonathan Olley/©2012 Zero Dark Thirty

Retelling the most contemporary history, however, may be laden with the most challenges. “Zero Dark Thirty” relays a sequence of events so eerily recent and familiar that the film itself seems to function as a quasi-documentary. For most audiences, the film conveys an amount of reported detail that for most Americans was previously unknown. The writer, Boal, who is also a journalist, has said countless times that his telling is based on real reporting. “I think he thought this movie would be kind of a scoop,” Hoberman said. 

But the public was deeply disturbed by the revelation of its contents. “Sometimes filmmakers raise what we call an uncomfortable truth,” Hoberman said. The film’s disclosures and its implications struck raw nerves and open wounds. Osama Bin Laden’s death is too recent for the critical distance that understanding his place in history requires. And the confrontation with our country’s use of torture is still unfolding. “Zero Dark Thirty” has helped uncloak dark chapters in our nation’s history, but the response to it suggests that history is better understood when it’s over. 

The problem with historical movies is the problem with all histories: They are approximations, interpretations or imaginings of what happened. “Even professional historians, when they come to write, begin to do the things that movies do,” Thomson said. “Not as crudely, but you select and present; you tell a story.” 

If written history is considered more reliable, explained Gary Gutting, endowed chair of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, it is because it presents “the reasoning behind things, the evidence for it, how certain positions are established.” It provides footnotes, arguments and counter-arguments. It presents facts as evidence for certain historical conclusions. “A movie has the problem of its very vividness; it’s always going to be presenting more than we can possibly know.”  

Movies can at best probe elements of history and evoke them with the tools of its trade: color, character, scene, drama, emotion.

“When you’re writing about history you have to consider what the audience already knows and then use that to your advantage,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin explained of his craft. Sorkin has won much acclaim for his highly detailed renderings of “real” life — from the White House television drama “The West Wing” to his Oscar-winning portrayal of the creation of Facebook with “The Social Network” to his latest study on modern media with HBO’s “Newsroom.” Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about translating reality into fiction without compromising verisimilitude. “It can be exhilarating when the audience knows more than the characters do. In ‘All the President’s Men,’ Robert Redford is woken up by a call to go cover a petty burglary. We know his life and the country are about to change forever. We also know how it ends. The movie is going to live in the places where the things we know meet the things we didn’t.

“Tony Kushner had to make Abraham Lincoln talk,” Sorkin added admiringly. “He humanized a guy most of us only know from the penny.”

Feature films, in the end, are about the magic of invention. Realistic, but constrained by the need to entertain and the impulse to inspire. Sorkin, for one, often describes his work as “idealistic,” and history is anything but. But he is right that movies are better understood as dreams and fantasies, illusions and ideals, mysteries and beliefs. As Hoberman exquisitely put it: “I don’t think that there can be absolute history. When you have a dream, you create a narrative when you remember it.”

Like the Bible, movies are not diminished if devoid of literalism. On the contrary, their stories gain relevance and meaning through the prism of interpretation.  

“I think we owe it to those whose stories we tell to be as accurate as possible,” the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis wrote to me in an e-mail. “[But] we are dramatists, not documentarians. We shape the truth not only in what we write, but what we don’t. We need to tell the truth as we see it, through our characters’ eyes. And if we do our job well, we will reveal the truth of our subject and characters, even if those truths are uncomfortable, and perhaps not what our subjects would have liked to have seen, should they be sitting in the audience.”