The movies just love, love, love history. But history does not love the movies back. Not even one little bit.
Movies based on or re-creating the past have been a cinematic staple since the earliest days of silent film, with stage great Sarah Bernhardt, for instance, playing Queen Elizabeth I as far back as a 1912 star vehicle.
I don’t know what the reaction of concerned citizens was a century ago, but if “Queen Elizabeth” were to come out today, historians, academics and other interested parties would be all over it like white on rice.
That’s what happened recently when, just a few days after Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” appeared in theaters, the New York Times reported, on its august front page, no less, that Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former top aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, had “accused the filmmakers of deliberately ignoring the historical record” in their depiction of the tumultuous relationship between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and LBJ.
That wail of complaint is just one of a series that appear with some regularity these days. No one can have forgotten, for instance, how members of the U.S. Senate, a group not previously known for its critical acumen, gave “Zero Dark Thirty” and its depiction of torture in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden a lot of grief.
Even further back, the makers of “The Hurricane,” a Denzel Washington-starring biopic about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, were castigated for their interpretation of the late boxer’s life. I even heard strident complaining that Michael Winterbottom’s austere “Welcome to Sarajevo” had placed key events in that beleaguered city in the wrong hotel. Really.
It’s not only historians who get upset at the movies: Scientists get aggravated as well. Just this past year, the makers of “The Theory of Everything” were criticized for getting some of scientist Stephen Hawking’s theories wrong, and even “Interstellar,” work of science fiction though it is, was hit with claims of inaccuracy.
These complaints can hurt a film, especially at Oscar time. Deadline constraints mean this story was written before it could be known whether “Selma’s” nomination count was affected by the fuss, but I hope it wasn’t. And that’s not because I know whether “Selma” got it right or not (I don’t) or because I don’t believe films should attempt to be as accurate as they can (I do).
Rather, I think people who are as shocked as Capt. Louis Renault was to discover gambling in “Casablanca” when they find errors in films are missing the point. And that’s because of something I learned quite some time ago when an event I was tangentially involved in became the subject of a major motion picture. The event was Watergate, the film “All the President’s Men.”
No, I was not Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s silent partner, but I was a reporter for the Washington Post while the story unfolded, and all the major journalistic players were people I knew. This was, thankfully, as close as I was going to get to having a movie about my life.
I vividly remember sitting in the Kennedy Center for the film’s 1976 world premiere and watching as Dustin Hoffman’s Bernstein called someone for a comment and got an angry hang-up as a response. Wow, my initial thought was, how exciting, how thrilling to get hung up on in pursuit of the truth.
Then, a moment later, reality hit me. Wait a minute, I realized, you’ve been in that situation, you’re a Washington Post reporter and you’ve been hung up on in that very newsroom. And there’s nothing even remotely exciting about it. It’s as painful and unpleasant an experience as a journalist can have.
Those connected moments made me realize that film by its very big-screen nature inevitably glamorizes and mythologizes. Even when it’s trying its hardest to be accurate and low key, as “All the President’s Man” definitely did, it’s going to be wide of the mark because of the intrinsic nature of the medium.
This is so much the case that documentary filmmakers have to contend with it as well; in addition, candid doc folk all understand that their presence runs the risk of altering the reality of what they’re filming. Even as austere a documentarian as Frederick Wiseman insists that every image he chooses to put on-screen, every cut he chooses to make, is as much a function of his creative decision-making as the actuality he is conveying.
More than that, as a former history major who still reads in that area, I know that for historians, the past itself is not something set in stone but rather a series of situations open to various interpretations.
One would think, for instance, that after 100 years, something as significant as the cause of World War I would be settled history. In fact, two recent, fiendishly researched books by eminent historians (“The Sleepwalkers” by Christopher Clark and “Catastrophe 1914" by Max Hastings) take completely opposite positions as to how much responsibility Germany bears for the start of the conflagration.
Given all this, while historical films would be wise to strive for the truth, you can see what a fool’s errand it is to actually expect it from them and to be upset at its absence.
For movies, in the final analysis, are constitutionally incapable of being completely accurate. They glamorize, they romanticize, they tell stories, they make things larger than life. Which is why, when it comes down to it, we love them so much in the first place.