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.
In other words, the writer sacrificed the facts not to art, nor to greater thematic meaning, but to his audience’s attention span — to the prerequisites of commercial cinema in a Darwinian entertainment marketplace.
The chief sins in that marketplace are boredom and confusion: Above all else, a mainstream movie must make sense, must have a progression of conflict and resolution familiar from a century of moviemaking if not millennia of storytelling. Even if you’re Tony Kushner.
The same goes for Affleck and his screenwriter Chris Terrio, although no one’s making quite the same fuss about “Argo.” Tony Mendez, the CIA “exfiltration” expert played by Affleck in the film, has written his own play-by-play version of the Iranian rescue; called “A Classic Case of Deception,” it’s easily Googleable at the CIA’s website. And it’s a fascinating read that lacks the most viscerally dramatic moments in the movie. There’s no “location scout” in which the six Americans have to play their fake Hollywood roles in public. There’s no tense ringing telephone picked up at the very last minute in Los Angeles. And there’s certainly no tarmac chase. In reality, Mendez and the Americans got on the plane and it flew off. Period.
But that wouldn’t make a very interesting movie, would it? In fact, it’s those inventions that have arguably contributed to the film’s popular success and Affleck’s revived career. He and Terrio haven’t just told a good story, they’ve made a good Hollywood story. When facts collide with the entertainment industry’s profit motive — the overriding need to make a movie appeal to as wide an audience as possible — the facts invariably lose out.
“Argo” and “Lincoln” deal with events that took place well in the past, so in a sense, time is on their side. “Zero Dark Thirty” is in a different pickle, one that recalls the furor over the 1978 best picture winner “The Deer Hunter.” In that Vietnam War drama, writer-director Michael Cimino had his POW characters forced by their Viet Cong captors to play harrowing games of Russian roulette, with horrifying results.
The film seemed to imply such games actually occurred, and Cimino later made vague noises about reading news articles to that effect. Newsman Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reporting, called the Russian roulette metaphor “a bloody lie.” Critic Roger Ebert defended Cimino’s artistic license. The film won best picture and, 25 years later, few modern viewers hold those scenes accountable to documented reality. They play like what they are: galvanizing drama.
In “Zero Dark Thirty,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques ultimately lead to a suspected terrorist (played by Reda Kateb) volunteering information about one of Osama bin Laden’s couriers. This has been taken by many critics, on all points of the political spectrum, as a defense of torture as well as a lie. In point of fact, the Dec. 21, 2012, statement by CIA Acting Director Michael Morell is a remarkable work of crypto-speak: “The truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.
And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.” Does that clear the matter up?
For her part, Bigelow has not only claimed the usual creative license but has dug her heels in, arguing that she has made “a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force.” And it’s true that just because “Zero Dark Thirty” refuses to lecture its audience doesn’t mean it lacks a point of view. On the contrary, Bigelow’s choice (unlike Spielberg’s or Affleck’s) makes her movie harder to watch rather than easier, throwing the issue of what lines of humanity we crossed to find bin Laden up to each viewer and his or her conscience. This is probably as it should be.
It’s telling that there has been much less of a to-do over the movie’s reduction of a real-life team of female CIA analysts — known as “the Sisterhood” in intelligence circles — to one hot (if somber) babe played by Jessica Chastain. That’s OK, it seems, since everyone knows a movie needs a lone-wolf hero and some eye candy, and if the two are combined into one character, all the better. So what if it obscures the history of those who really were responsible for bringing bin Laden to justice?
The crowning irony is that Bigelow and Boal have been bashed for the fib meant to make us think while being praised for distortions that fit more neatly into Hollywood’s way of doing business and our own expectations of what makes for a good night at the movies. And perhaps it’s this response to the film that has it exactly backward.
Ultimately, all movies betray reality by making choices, leaving things out, adding things in — by creating drama. Do they owe us the truth if we don’t ask for it? “Lincoln” and “Argo” have the best shots at taking home the top Oscar tonight, with “Zero Dark Thirty” a dark-horse possibility, but whichever movie wins won’t just be the best movie of 2012. It will also be the film that lied to us most convincingly.