the Fact of Fiction and the Fiction of Fact
|February 22, 2013
By MANOHLA DARGIS and A. O. SCOTT
They don’t call Hollywood the Truth Factory.
This awards season, though, some of the Dream Factory’s highest-profile contenders — “Lincoln,” “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained” — have been subjected to unusually insistent fact-checking from journalists, politicians and op-ed pontificators. Among the accusations: Connecticut congressmen did not vote against the 13th amendment in 1865, as shown in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Iranian Revolutionary Guards did not chase a plane carrying six American Embassy workers down a Tehran airport runway in 1980, as they do in the climax of Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” And a freed slave in 1858 did not lay waste to a Mississippi plantation called Candyland to free his German-speaking wife, as in Quentin Tarantino’s brazenly fantastical “Django Unchained.”
Arguments over these movies raise familiar questions about art and its uses: Is art supposed to make us better people, give us moral instruction, work toward the social good or exist merely for our personal pleasure? Above all, does it have to be true? When it comes to this recent crop of historically informed movies, these eternal conundrums have been intensified by an acute contemporary anxiety about the truth that has less to do with how rightly or wrongly “Argo,” for instance, gets its facts than with the crumbling monopolies on the truth held by institutions like the government and the press.
The best picture nominees are not documentaries or journalism or scholarship, even if they come, like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” with virtual footnotes and a veneer of visual and aural authenticity. “Zero Dark Thirty” begins with audio taken from real phone calls made from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. “Argo,” in addition to its meticulous recreations of the lapels and sideburns of 1980, includes archival images of President Carter and the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Zero Dark Thirty
These movies attest to the ascendance of what might be called a documentary ethos (all reality, all the time) that pervades in every corner of the culture — from “found footage” horror movies like the “Paranormal Activity” franchise to the variously artificial forms of reality television — and that has helped to further blur the already fuzzy line between fact and fiction.
The rules of journalism seem clear enough, at least when they are violated. But where, in a work of imagination drawn from real life, are we supposed to draw the line between acceptable invention and irresponsible fabrication? Can we shrug off, say, the preposterous fancies of “Shakespeare in Love” and playful untruths in “The King’s Speech” and still object to the paranoid embroideries of “JFK”? Historians know that facts are not separate from interpretation and the same can be said of taste in movies. There is no single standard that would condemn (or excuse) both the whimsical inventions of “Marie Antoinette,” in which the Queen of France is glimpsed wearing high-top sneakers, and the wholesale revisionism of “Mississippi Burning,” which ridiculously credited white F.B.I. agents for the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement.
One of the strongest objections to “Lincoln” has been that it focuses on elite politics rather than popular action, thus denying the agency of African-Americans in their own emancipation. This is an argument about the meaning of the events depicted in — and left out of — the film and about how Mr. Spielberg and the writer Tony Kushner have shaped the facts to their own ends. Their placement of Connecticut’s congressional delegation on the wrong side of history has upset some residents of that state, but the deeper objection to “Lincoln” has to do with the way it turns the history of African-American freedom into the story of a heroic white man. “Lincoln” isn’t “Mississippi Burning,” but each is part of a larger debate about who owns history.
Movies tend to tell more than one story. “Argo” isn’t just about a thrilling rescue: it is also about two powerful institutions — the American movie industry and the Central Intelligence Agency — that are masters of dissembling. “Django Unchained” is about the representation of African-Americans in Hollywood movies and also about one specific black man (Django) who stands for many, including the one with the biggest metaphoric gun in the world: President Obama. Because of the Newtown massacre, “Django” has also become about our culture of violence.
For its part, “Lincoln” isn’t just about how President Lincoln navigated the passage of the 13th Amendment; it is also about President Obama, whose presidency could not be imagined without that amendment. The movie can also be seen as a critique of Mr. Obama’s inability to force the opposition to work with him.
This isn’t the first time Lincoln has been pressed into metaphoric service. During the Great Depression, the Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg drew parallels between Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and films like “Young Mr. Lincoln,” underscored continuities between two fraught eras. Then, too, movie truth was a hot topic when Raymond Massey was cast in the title role of the 1940 film “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” and a Daily News editorial asked: “A Canadian playing Abraham Lincoln?” (No one has protested that Daniel Day-Lewis is Anglo-Irish.)
The most serious controversy of this Oscar season has surrounded “Zero Dark Thirty.” Its detractors have seized upon its embellishments and imaginative leaps to infer a sinister agenda, accusing Ms. Bigelow and Mark Boal, the film’s scriptwriter, of endorsing or even celebrating torture. There is considerable ambiguity in the historical record, some of which remains secret, making it difficult to say with absolute certainty whether torture did or did not yield useful intelligence. What is known is that the C.I.A. used interrogation techniques on detainees like those depicted in the movie’s early scenes.
In “Zero Dark Thirty,” these techniques — indirectly and years later — lead to Osama bin Laden. Critics of the movie — including senators from both parties and journalists with deep expertise on the subject — insist that this is flatly and dangerously false.
If “Zero Dark Thirty” has been singled out for harsher condemnation than other movies and television shows that employ representations of violence, it is partly because, as Mark Bowden pointed out in “The Atlantic,” the filmmakers called attention to the reporting they did as “journalistic” and broadcast the access they gained to Navy SEAL team members and C.I.A. field officers. In other words, they staked a claim on the truth.
Such truth claims are one reason movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” and some of the other best picture nominees have excited audiences: they take on historical issues that intersect with contemporary debates. For some, the apparent topicality of these movies — “Django” opened 10 days after the Newtown school massacre and “Lincoln” arrived in theaters soon after the election — makes them fodder for discussions about truth, reality and history. For others, arguments about cinematic truth have become political arguments carried out by other means. “Zero Dark Thirty,” for instance, has become the target, perhaps the scapegoat, in an important debate about the morality of American antiterrorism policies, including “enhanced interrogation” during the Bush administration and targeted killings and drone strikes under President Obama.
Audiences are used to reading the words “based on a true story” as a hedge rather than a promise (or a threat!). And we are often in the dark about just what has been changed or omitted. Even devoted history buffs may not remember the tally of votes in Congress nearly 150 years ago. But thinking adults can tell the difference between a fiction film and a nonfiction one, despite the worried warnings from politicians and others who have recently been moonlighting as movie critics. Behind some of the most inflamed concern over works like “Lincoln” and especially “Zero Dark Thirty” is a thinly veiled distrust of the American public — that, well, moviegoers are just not smart or sophisticated or schooled enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, on-screen lies and off-screen ones.
Given some of the stories that politicians themselves have peddled to the public, including the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, such concern is understandable. It can often seem as if everyone is making stuff up all the time and in such a climate of suspicion and well-earned skepticism — punctuated by “gotcha” moments of scandal and embarrassment — movies are hardly immune.
But invention remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.