One of the more fascinating, and unexpected, subplots of this year’s Academy Awards has to do with role that authenticity, accuracy, and truth plays among this year’s nominated films. We expect these topics to be part of any discussion of, let’s say, German post-Expressionist theater, but we’re not used to talking about them in the context of American movies. And yet, here we are, little more than a week away from the Oscars, debating the nature of Truth in the movies.
The nine nominees in the Best Picture category have more in common than meets the eye: they each have something to add, intentionally or unintentionally, to a deeper conversation about truth. Here are the films:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
Of these nine, I’ve only seen six, so let’s first begin with the three I haven’t seen: Amour, Django Unchained, and Les Misérables. Amour, which I can’t say I’m necessarily looking forward to watching, is said to be an unflinching glimpse into the deterioration of a woman at the end of her life. The reviews I’ve read mention it’s the kind of story – an unsparingly truthful account of how the elderly deal with the onset of disease and dementia — that we rarely see dramatized on film. Django Unchained is another of Quentin Tarantino’s recent revisionist histories. In Inglourious Basterds, he killed Hitler; this time, he’s avenging slavery (he’s spoken about doing a third such revisionist piece, though I can only imagine what he’ll tackle next). In defending his prolific use of on-screen violence, Tarantino has argued that, in fact, nothing he chose to portray in his film even comes close to depicting the actual horrors endured by the slaves themselves. And Les Misérables, of course, is based on the historical French novel by Victor Hugo. Hugo was known for going off on tangents; large chunks of the novel are devoted to material not directly related to the plot, including, most famously, the many chapters covering the Battle of Waterloo. The character of Jean Valjean is himself based on an actual ex-convict who turned his life around.
Moving right along, Beasts of the Southern Wild gets right to the heart of this question of truth. Half the time, we don’t know if what we’re watching is happening to Hushpuppy or if it’s all in her mind. Plenty of movies have attempted this device, but I can’t really recall it being handled with as much poise and subtlety as in this one. Indeed, one can argue that the film might be too stylized — that, at some point, it stops being Hushpuppy’s story. Benh Zeitlin, the film’s young, enormously gifted director, may have found himself less drawn to Hushpuppy’s interior life than to the volatile world around her. But perhaps that was his intention all along: to create a universe for the little girl in which we, as viewers, would question our long cherished, unconscious biases for realism over illusion, certainty over interpretation.
Life of Pi continues this theme of blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality. I wish I could say that the story held my attention throughout — I went into the movie entirely open to the promise of its hypnotic charms — but its musings on religion, philosophy, fate, and acceptance were handled a bit too generically for my taste. Also, I’m embarrassed to admit that the stunning visuals (in 3D no less) had little impact on me. I don’t want to give too much away if you haven’t seen it, but what differentiates Life of Pi from Beasts of the Southern Wild is that, in Life of Pi, the story hinges on whether the audience will choose to accept one version of events over another, whereas, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, we’re never really asked to choose. This lingering debate in Life of Pi about whether what we are watching is “true” becomes, in a sense, what the movie is about.
I think Lincoln is Steven Spielberg’s greatest work since Schindler’s List, and believe it to be among the most important films he’s ever made. Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, transform what could have been a dry retelling of back-room arm twisting into one of the most absorbing and emotional historical dramas you’ll ever see. Much has been written about the film’s commitment to historical authenticity: the sound designer, for instance, mixed in actual recordings of Lincoln’s ticking watch. And while the general consensus among experts is that Spielberg did an admirable job balancing the inherent demands of storytelling with what he recognized to be his responsibility to get the facts right, even Lincoln hasn’t been spared from controversy on the question of historical accuracy. At a key moment in the film — the final vote to ratify the 13th Amendment — the Congressmen from Connecticut vote no. This did not go over well with Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney, who went back and checked the record: in reality, not only did Connecticut vote for ratification, but one of its delegates crossed party lines to do so.
Tony Kushner responded to the criticism in The Wall Street Journal:
I respectfully disagree with the Congressman’s contention that accuracy in every detail is “paramount” in a work of historical drama. Accuracy is paramount in every detail of a work of history. Here’s my rule: Ask yourself, “Did this thing happen?” If the answer is yes, then it’s historical. Then ask, “Did this thing happen precisely this way?” If the answer is yes, then it’s history; if the answer is no, not precisely this way, then it’s historical drama.
Some don’t see it that way. DVDs of the film are set to be distributed to all public and private middle and high schools in the U.S., and the Congressman from Connecticut is asking that “a correction can be made in advance of the film’s DVD release.” Personally, I don’t know how you would go about fixing it — if you’ve seen the film, you know there’s no way to alter or remove that sequence. Even if the filmmakers did include a disclaimer during the end credits stating that Connecticut did in fact vote to abolish slavery, it’s the kind of thing that either won’t be noticed or will undermine the veracity of the rest of the movie. And yet, I say they should somehow try to fix it anyway. This is a movie that will be part of our culture 50 years from now, maybe longer, and this is precisely the type of obvious error that is worth correcting. Whatever Spielberg decides, this episode illustrates yet again how easy it is for filmmakers to get into trouble when dramatizing actual events.
Speaking of trouble, the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty reportedly got a lot of their information from classified documents leaked to them by CIA agents, and there has been much controversy over the film’s portrayal of torture and whether it proved useful to the mission. I already wrote a previous post on the subject and don’t want to rehash it, so I’ll try to be brief. To me, Zero Dark Thirty is a great conversation-starter; I’m just not sure it’s a great film. But let’s focus on this question of truth in art. The screenwriter, Mark Boal, started out as a journalist, and he’s been a bit cagey about which parts of the movie are factual and which aren’t. The central dilemma facing audiences with a movie like Zero Dark Thirty is that it’s been constructed to appear true. That is, Kathryn Bigelow, the director, is not trying to create the pretense that her film is a work of fiction, or that events leading up to the raid on bin Laden’s compound were fictionalized for the sake of heightening dramatic tension. She’s going for precisely the opposite effect: part of the reason there are so many dry stretches in the movie is that it’s intended to be an accurate depiction of events. But this begs the question, accurate according to whom? Secret sources? CIA agents trying to cover their butts? We’ll never know.
Whatever controversy the makers of Zero Dark Thirty stepped into for supposedly straying from the facts has not rubbed off on Argo, the frontrunner to win Best Picture. Is Argo the most entertaining movie of the year? Absolutely. Nothing else even came close. The pacing is relentless — there isn’t a wasted moment in the whole movie. But we don’t rate Best Picture nominees simply on their entertainment value, or at least I don’t think we do. My issue with Argo is that, while the premise is based on verifiable facts, every twist and turn dramatized on-screen has been invented for our viewing pleasure.
Why does this continue to bother me so much? I’m not entirely sure, but it got me thinking about that terrific sequence in Zero Dark Thirty when bin Laden’s courier is talking on his cell phone as the CIA attempts to triangulate his signal and make a visual ID. This proves difficult, as the courier is constantly in and out of phone range, and the agents keep losing his signal. Through a series of split second decisions in the field, the agents are able to anticipate the courier’s next move, eventually locating him and snapping his photograph. It’s a breathtaking sequence, and I’d like to believe it happened a bit like that in real life.
But what if this entire scene had been completely made up? What if what really happened was that the CIA had his photograph all along and didn’t need to go through the bother of figuring out which person on a telephone in a crowded marketplace was bin Laden’s secret courier? What if the whole episode was just the invention of a clever screenwriter? That would be nakedly manipulative, and you can bet viewers would be upset if they found out.
The most suspenseful moments in Argo never actually happened. In reality, according to the article that originally appeared in Wired Magazine in 2007, the operation could at any moment have taken a turn for the worse, but never did. So what do you do when you have a terrific premise for a movie based on a once classified operation, that, in reality, went down without a hitch? If you decide to tell that story in as truthful a manner as possible, you’ll end up denying the audience the pleasures of a taut, nail-biting thriller. You might have the makings for a decent PBS documentary, but not a Hollywood movie. Then again, if you invent all the exciting parts in order to turn the story into a variation of a James Bond thriller, then, well, you’ve got a different kind of problem altogether.
Do most people who see Argo actually know the most suspenseful scenes were made up? Argo opens with a documentary-style history lesson about America’s involvement in Iran in the decades leading up to the overthrow of the Shah, then goes on to brilliantly depict the attack on the American Embassy. During the closing credits, photos of the actual escaped embassy workers are shown alongside the actors who portrayed them. There’s even an audio clip of Jimmy Carter talking about the mission. So the story we watched is true, right? It may be that audiences are more comfortable with the historical inaccuracies in Argo because we’ve seen enough movies to know when filmmakers are embellishing for the sake of entertainment, and we’re comfortable with the arrangement. Ben Affleck might argue that the greater goal of his movie is to get us to revisit the period of the hostage crisis in order to reexamine preconceived notions about what took place. Or he might say that he was trying to make a good movie, and had a special obligation to not bore the audience. Hence, the daring chase sequence on an airport runway, even if it didn’t happen that way.
It can seem as if filmmakers want it both ways, to draw upon history for inspiration for their stories, and then, when critics bring up the inaccuracies, to sit back and argue that it’s only a movie. The rationale for this approach is that audiences are too dumb to get the deeper meaning of a story unless it’s been sufficiently dramatized for our benefit, but this is a double-edged sword. When it’s convenient, filmmakers will also argue the inverse: that audiences are smart enough to notice when we’re being bamboozled. In other words, we’re supposed to know when we’re being lied to at the exact same moment we’re meant to grasp a story’s underlying truths.
Maybe that’s why, when all is said and done, I’m still a sucker for original screenplays or scripts adapted from novels. In an original work, characters are made up, and can do whatever the writer dreams up. Of course, even in a completely original work, writers are expected to abide by certain rules of plausibility. I’m still scratching my head about Skyfall; could somebody please explain to me why Bond didn’t call for help at the end (or at the very least engage a tracking device, as he did earlier on)? That kind of lapse in logic really gets on my nerves, but at least I’m not watching a Bond movie and worrying about whether or not the real MI6 has an elaborate underground headquarters in London.
In Silver Linings Playbook, what we expect in terms of plausibility is that the characters behave in a way consistent with their natures. And so this means that Pat (Bradley Cooper’s character) can’t suddenly behave as if his bipolar condition has disappeared. We’d feel cheated if the character suddenly got “cured,” and David O. Russell is careful not to let that happen. It means that Pat’s father can’t suddenly behave as if football is no longer his greatest passion; the changes he undergoes have to be in keeping with the parts of himself that he can’t change. What we don’t fully realize until the film is over is that David O. Russell found his footing so effortlessly at the very start that questions of plausibility were put to rest. That’s an incredible thing for a director to pull off. I think the expression is, “he had us eating out of the palm of his hand.”
But if it sounds easier to create a work of fiction than be handcuffed by the limitations of a story “based on actual events,” it’s worth remembering that good fiction has always been harder to pull off than docudrama. For starters, the standards for fiction are much, much higher. We go into a movie such as Lincoln knowing something about the main character; he’s no blank slate. But what if you wanted to write a story about a fictional character who was as principled, determined, and pragmatic as Abraham Lincoln — that’s a much tougher challenge. Doesn’t he sound too good to be true?
The best writers and filmmakers are in the business of creating worlds that can seem more truthful than the one we inhabit. Artists do this by injecting into their characters the kernels of something we recognize as truth, and viewers reward this with a willingness to follow a multi-dimensional, fully realized character almost anywhere. I’ve heard interviews with David O. Russell in which he’s spoken of how hard the actors worked to create this impression of verisimilitude. Takes would last as long as there was film in the camera — about 20 minutes — with the goal of allowing the actors to experience the story in a way that would seem entirely naturalistic. And it shows. I watched Silver Linings Playbook in a packed movie theater on a Saturday night, and there were moments in the film so electric, it felt as if the actors were giving a one-night-only, live stage performance directly in front of us, feeding off our energy as much as we were feeding off theirs.
In the ongoing debate over the role of truth in art, I’ll always have a preference for fiction over truth. Stories can feel truthful without having to be based on facts. On the other hand, if a film is claiming to be factual, there’s no harm in it also being true.
Update on February 17th: In her Sunday column, Maureen Down has come out forcibly in favor of Spielberg making a change in the vote counting scene to reflect the accurate historical record, and even ties in Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, reminding her readers that key elements of all three films have either been invented or proven inaccurate. She proposes a novel solution to fix the error in Lincoln: change the state in question from Connecticut to Illinois, where they really did vote against ratification. Stay tuned.