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Who Am I to Argue with History?

What do Hollywood film makers owe to history? I’ve had this question on my mind because I’ve been seeing quite a few historical films lately – The Reader, Chaplin, and Frost/Nixon will hopefully be arriving in my mailbox today – and I just wondered how faithful it was reasonable to expect a Hollywood film to be to real life events.

Contrary to popular belief, the missing 18 minutes from the Watergate tapes do not feature Richard Nixon practicing jazz hands...

Contrary to popular belief, the missing 18 minutes from the Watergate tapes do not feature Richard Nixon practicing jazz hands...


From a practical standpoint, it’s almost impossible to expect a 120 minute film to capture the true complexity of any large-scale historical event. Due to the limitations of the genre, shortcuts are necessary to simply trim the fat. That’s even before you take pacing and narrative considerations into account. Characters who played large roles can be reduced to bit players – for example the one informer in Michael Collins was a stand-in for about three individuals who aided the Irish cause – and ambiguous figures can find themselves converted into out-and-out villains so the audience knows who to root for – there are many examples, like arguably Nixon in Frost/Nixon, but most obviously DeValera in Michael Collins (he was played by Alan Rickman, for crying out loud!). These reasons are easy to understand – a film doesn’t have the same scale for narrative complexity that a book or television show could be. Band of Brothers is a hugely imersive experience, if only because it has ten hours to tell its story.

However, are such narrative shortcuts really forgiveable? I honestly don’t see an alternative. Of course, there are questions of scale. A good filmmaker knows what they can and can’t bend to get a good story. If history is a story, omitting such details can obstruct or hinder the narrative, confuse the audience and undermine the charcterisation – arguably bigger concerns when the audience is familiar with the original story. For example the omission of the 2000 election from W. skips a key portion of the titular character’s rise and, in this viewer’s opinion, misses the chance to further explore his insecurity issues. Because we know it’s there, it’s possible to miss it.

On the other hand, there are tonal shifts. The writer shows exactly what happened, but shifts the tone to create a stronger atmosphere. Frost/Nixon would not nearly have been so rivotting if it had revealled the actual agreement – Nixon had a stake in the interviews, so he needed them to go well just as much as Frost did; there was a climactic break in filming, but only so Nixon’s advisors could convince him to continue talking. Here the team behind a film seem to suggest that their primary duty is to entertain, and perhaps they are right. There isn’t a documentary cinema genre to compliment documentary theatre. People see films to be entertained, with enlightenment a secondary pleasure. I think this is fair, if only because filmmakers are neither historians nor journalists. They are primarily storytellers, and owe no real duty to education, save what they take on themselves.

Then’s there’s the big changes. The complete fabrications. Whether it’s something created because the writer could never know what really happened – for example, Oliver Stone’s guess about what was covered on the missing 18 minutes of tape in Nixon – or simply because they think it might be ‘fun’ to play with history – rumour has it that Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds might play a little fast and loose with histoy – which I honestly have little problem with, as long as they aren’t misrepresented. Hell, I can even tolerate them if they are, provided that they are good enough – the Coen Brothers’ Fargo contains a fake pre-credits claim to be based on a trues story, heaven knows why.

Also contrary to popular belief, 100,000 BC is not an example of "documentary cinema"

Also contrary to popular belief, 100,000 BC is not an example of "documentary cinema"

Of all the possible alterations made above, there’s only one that I am mildly uncomfortable with. It’s is misrepresentation of characters, particularly ones on which history’s judgement is still out. Here maybe – just maybe – filmmakers have a duty to do right by these individuals, particularly where the public doesn’t necessary have all the facts concerning their lives. As such, the films could form a lasting public perception of these individuals. While living individuals can sue for defamation of character, those long dead of now such recourse. I guess we count a lot on the decency of filmmakers, which – in the mainstream at least – seems to be enough. Even those highly controversial portrayals – Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella as Nixon, or Alan Rickman as Dev, Josh Brolin as George W. Bush – could be argued to be at least somewhat respectful or sympathetic.

I think I’ll continue to get my entertainment from Hollywood and my history from books.

One Response

  1. Nice post. I recently did a review for Defiance…

    http://cinestuff.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/movie-review-defiance/

    …a movie I enjoyed for the acting and a well written script. I got a couple of emails on another site about it, berating the film for its lack of historical accuracy.

    I don’t know the details of the situation, but I don’t think they mis-represented the story, so much as perhaps glossed over some of the protagnists actions. Either way – is it Hollywood’s job to provide a 100% accurate depiction of an event? As film goers, is it our responsibility to conduct serious historical research before we catch a flick? Can’t I just, you know, eat my popcorn?

    Anyways – intersting post and I like your blog. I’ll bookmark you for the future. Keep on truckin’.

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