Hard facts vs. big truths

Do artists have an obligation to get history right in films?

You wouldn’t think that the CIA could affect an Oscar race, but the denial of a best director nomination to Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty’’ probably has less to do with the film’s aesthetic merits than with the controversy that has been swirling around it. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who were both responsible for 2009’s Oscar-winning “Hurt Locker,” open their tale of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden with a scene of excruciating torture, after which the detainee spills a drop of information that later helps lead to bin Laden’s death. This has sent some critics of the film into paroxysms of anger. They fume that the movie is factually wrong when it shows the efficacy of torture and that it winds up celebrating waterboarding. Dan Froomkin on The Huffington Post called the movie “despicable.”

This certainly isn’t the first time that a movie has gotten clobbered for seemingly playing fast and loose with facts, though it may be the first time that an acting director of the CIA and three members of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain — scolded a film for doing so. Even Oliver Stone, who has been accused of playing with facts in his own historical films, chided the film for its historical inaccuracy, which certainly seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

To the film’s detractors, it is self-evident that an artist who is dealing with historical material has an obligation to get the facts right, and Bigelow and Boal have said that they were doing just that. They claim the information wrung from torture was a fact, at least as they ascertained it from their sources, adding that depicting torture isn’t the same thing as endorsing it. Thus far the debate has raged between those who support one set of facts (Bigelow’s and Boal’s) and those who support another set (the Intelligence Committee’s).


Whatever one may think of “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Django Unchained,” which has been accused of fictional inventions about plantation life, the real debate shouldn’t be over whose facts are right. It should be about fact versus truth.

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Just about everyone accepts that artists can exercise certain liberties when they deal with history. Even in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the filmmakers have admitted that their protagonist, the dogged, flame-haired CIA agent, is based on a real person but was also a composite. No one seems to object to that. Of course, showing the success of torture is of a different order than making a recombinant protagonist, but the deeper issue isn’t whether artists have an obligation to facts. It is whether they have an obligation to the truth — something that supersedes an obligation to fact.

Facts and truth are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they the same thing. Facts are verifiable and declarative: 2 plus 2 equals 4; the sun is gaseous; the CIA did or did not torture Al Qaeda detainees. They tell us about the physical world. Truth is larger than fact. It is a way of approaching the world and one another that is neither verifiable nor declarative. It tells us about the human condition and the human soul, and it brings us close to wisdom in all its murk and complexity.

Reporters and historians necessarily deal with facts, whether or not they also deal with truth. We read them to learn what happened. Artists don’t necessarily deal with facts, even when they are purporting to show us history. An artist’s highest obligation isn’t to “getting it right.” His or her obligation is to making us think, feel, and understand.

Frankly, facts are immaterial to this mission, though we may need the distance of time to appreciate that. No one would possibly chide Shakespeare for not being entirely faithful to the facts of Antony and Cleopatra or Henry IV or Henry V. No one would scream that Falstaff was a fabrication. That’s because everyone understands that Shakespeare wasn’t reporting facts. He was finding truths, which is the very thing that makes him one of the great artists of all time. Some 500 years later the facts don’t seem to matter. The art does.


This isn’t to say that “Zero Dark Thirty” shouldn’t ignite debate on the role of torture or to say that the debate isn’t an important one. Nor is it to say that the film couldn’t have dealt with the issue of torture in a context of its larger moral implications, a context of truth, if the film had been about torture, which it isn’t. It is simply to say that the debate over the facts isn’t germane to whatever aspirations the film may have as a work of art and that the debate operates in a different realm than art — the realm of politics.

So the real question about “Zero Dark Thirty” isn’t whether it distorted facts. Even if it did, the real question is: Does the film serve some larger truth about obsession, bureaucracy, evil, technology, or whatever it is a viewer might find the film to be about? That is the basis on which it should be judged, and if it doesn’t meet that test, it deserves a worse criticism than being unfaithful to facts. It deserves to be condemned as shallow. Facts, it is said, are stubborn things. But they are also small things in a universe of complicated truths.

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’