Oscar Films and the Prison of Historical Accuracy

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Universal Pictures, Scott Garfield/Fair Hil, Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros and The Weinstein Company

You know it’s Oscar season when the historical-accuracy hit squads show up. Over the past several weeks, it seems that almost every major awards contender has had some kind of high-profile accusation flung at it over its misappropriation of the truth. It happens every year, of course (remember the late Christopher Hitchens laying into The King’s Speech back in 2011?), but this time, it’s reached comically epidemic levels — in part because so many of the Oscar contenders are either biopics or otherwise historical in nature. Recently, some have taken issue with the depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson in Selma (despite the fact that LBJ actually comes off reasonably well in the film). Last week, Foxcatcher got a body blow from its own main subject, Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, who started screaming at director Bennett Miller over social media about the liberties the film took with his life. Before that, it was The Imitation Game coming under scrutiny for its not entirely accurate depiction of scientist Alan Turing and his work as a code-breaker during WWII. And if you think things have already gotten too heated, wait till the whole was–American Sniper’s–Chris Kyle–actually-a-monster? debate starts to rage in full. After that, I can only presume that Stephen Hawking will start a Twitter war with his Theory of Everything director James Marsh.

To be fair, some truth-seekers are a lot more polite than others: There’s a world of difference between an article that lays out what a writer feels are historical inaccuracies — which can actually be a valuable endeavor — and one that takes to an op-ed page to declare that a film “should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season,” as former LBJ aide Joseph Califano did a couple of weeks ago, tipping his hand. But if we abided solely by such standards, such epochal, classic masterpieces like Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Emperor, and Schindler’s List would also have to be ruled out, to say nothing of recent Oscar winners like Argo or the aforementioned The King’s Speech.

Because, surprise! These movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. (And even documentaries don’t always need to be totally accurate — just ask Werner Herzog.) They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves — to the demands of drama, to the demands of (yes) entertainment, and even to the demands of the broader truths they’re trying to evoke. There are limits to that, for sure: A movie about Hitler that tried to play down or deny the Holocaust might not exactly fly. An Obama biopic that shows him as a secret Muslim would be rightfully ridiculed, though I’m sure a certain segment of the population would embrace it. (But let’s not give Dinesh D’Souza any ideas.)

I’m not a historian, and I’m not interested in inserting myself into a debate over Selma’s veracity, but as a film, it’s a very compelling and gripping portrait of a group of men and women engaged in the dangerous, ground-level work of protest and political action. As David Edelstein says in his review of the film, it’s “about long-lived injustice, short-lived politics, and how to make the latter serve the former.” If Selma downplays or subverts LBJ’s efforts, that might be because its focus is elsewhere. And it not only shows Johnson struggling to find and assume his place in history, it also shows King struggling to do the same; that’s called good storytelling. Plus, the last thing we need is yet another White Savior movie about race: As Henry Louis Gates said yesterday, “any attempt to make this about the Great White Father is misdirected.”

If the furor over Selma seems particularly pronounced, that might also be because Hollywood has been so slow to make a major film about Martin Luther King; now that it has, everybody has very specific ideas about what needs to be included, and how. So, let’s also take a moment to soak in the irony of the fact that DuVernay specifically could not use any of King’s actual speeches in her film; those rights apparently have been licensed to DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg. In other words, she had to take historical liberties just to be able to make Selma in the first place. It’s a classic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation.

The problem is that so very often, when you deal with historical subjects, you’re also dealing with numerous stakeholders, some of whom have personal connections to the subject matter. Hell, some of them are the subject matter, as the situation with Schultz and Foxcatcher demonstrates. And people who have a personal connection to a subject very often have their own ideas about how that subject should be depicted. Indeed, this is why filmmakers usually make sure to have the support of these folks before releasing their films; the Foxcatcher team presumably thought they had Schultz’s blessing, as he was there celebrating with them at the film’s world premiere at Cannes and had been mostly supportive of the film until recently. It appears, however, that after reading some reviews suggesting that the depiction of his relationship with John du Pont had homosexual overtones, Schultz felt he’d been misrepresented. (So filmmakers not only have to worry about their own films’ adherence to historical fact, they also have to worry about retroactive fact-checking based on what some reviews have to say.)

But sometimes in cinema, you can also reach a greater truth by taking some liberties with historical facts. The Imitation Game is an interesting example of this. As a bit of an Alan Turing obsessive, I was greatly looking forward to the film. I also knew that it would have to find some ways to condense and dramatize the work done at Bletchley Park, where Turing and his colleagues toiled for years to decode the German military’s many encrypted messages. A truly authentic portrait of the grueling and incredibly tedious work done by Turing probably wouldn’t have made for good cinema.

So, the film cheats a bit: It depicts Turing singlehandedly building a giant computing machine to help solve the Enigma code. In fact, the Poles, who had broken the original Enigma codes (there were numerous Enigma codes, and the Germans kept modifying them), had built these machines; Turing revised and expanded them. (The film does include a brief line in which Turing gives some credit to the Poles, but really, it’s extremely easy to miss.) The film also shows Turing building one machine and calling it Christopher, after the boy he loved in school. In fact, there were many machines built, and as far as we know, Turing didn’t name any of them Christopher. But showing Turing building one machine, seemingly from scratch, helps underscore his reputation as the father of modern computer science, and showing him give the machine a name evokes Turing’s homosexuality and his unrequited love for Christopher, who was a real person and is depicted in the film through flashbacks. These narrative shortcuts may not be accurate, but they make poignant connections between Turing’s work at Bletchley Park and his early years, potentially leading toward greater insights about his character. I have my issues with The Imitation Game, but the liberties it takes with the truth over code-breaking actually make the film more touching, not less.

A movie — a two- or two-plus-hour work of narrative — has its own rhythms, its own demands. American Sniper the book, for example, is an episodic recounting of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq, and of his many kills. Clint Eastwood’s film, to give itself some narrative shape, invents a largely fictional cat-and-mouse game between Kyle and a Syrian sniper named Mustafa. While there was a real Mustafa, he’s mentioned only in passing in the book; he and Kyle had no interactions. Does that dishonor the original story? Some may think it does — maybe by romanticizing the gruesome drudgery of war — but it also, frankly, makes the movie less of a slog. There are, as noted earlier, other potential issues around American Sniper and Chris Kyle’s own potential trustworthiness. But it’s also clear that the filmmakers have based their film on Kyle’s own book, and on his point of view. The film should live or die as a film, not as history.

At the same time, sometimes discovering the liberties taken with the truth can reveal why a film doesn’t quite work. Watching Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. I liked the film, but the remarkable passages of Louie Zamperini’s life that the film depicts — his Olympic glory, his combat experience, his shoot-down and subsequent weeks stranded on a raft, and, finally, his years of agony in a POW camp — didn’t hold together for me in any meaningful way. That’s because, as I later discovered, the film had mostly trampled what should have been its third act — Zamperini’s post-traumatic stress after the war, his religious awakening, and his eventual forgiveness of his Japanese captors — into a rushed coda. Again, I quote Edelstein: “If the narrative is finally unsatisfying, it’s because the last vital chapter … is signaled in a couple of title cards before the closing credits.” Here’s a situation where a closer adherence to history might have actually helped make the film onscreen work better as a drama.

Obviously, the folks who made Unbroken have the right to make whatever film they want, and no doubt getting enough of Zamperini’s story into a feature-length film was a hefty challenge to begin with. But his religious awakening — his finding God at a 1949 tent revival held by Rev. Billy Graham, the effects of that on vanquishing his PTSD, and his dedication to Christianity and forgiveness in later years — is not only an integral part of his story, it’s one of the things that make the story so special. Why is it so underplayed? One hopes it’s because the filmmakers simply felt the story was more effective this way, and not because … oh, say … liberal Academy voters might not be so keen on a character whose great third-act revelation is becoming an Evangelical Christian. (By this token, I admire Big Eyes’ willingness to show Margaret Keane becoming a Jehovah’s Witness later in life, and the role it played in her coming clean about her role in Walter Keane’s duplicity; it makes sense within the context of the film, and it also has the virtue of being mostly faithful. I say all this, by the way, as a complete atheist.)

Ultimately, these controversies will wash away with Oscar season. But their bitter aftertaste may remain. Look at what happened to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty a couple of years ago. Even before it opened, the film had to endure relentless fact-checking over its depiction of torture and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. At first, right-wingers were angry that the movie was going to be Obama-glorifying propaganda. Then, once people saw the film, the left attacked it for daring to show that torture of prisoners may have led to intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts. And indeed, recent revelations from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture confirm that torture did not lead to any real intelligence in the hunt for bin Laden.

But lost in the shuffle, it seems, is Bigelow’s beautiful film itself — a dark, gripping drama about the moral compromises the central character makes in her obsessive pursuit of one man and one goal, and a film that (if you ask me) in no way condones the horrific torture of human beings, even though it certainly shows it. Many will argue, however, that such issues of drama or nuance shouldn’t matter. They will say, as some of Selma’s detractors are now saying, that ours is a culture where people are more likely to get their ideas about history and the news from movies and TV shows than from newspapers or history books. They may be right. But that’s our problem, not cinema’s.

Oscar Films & the Prison of Historical Accuracy