How Important Is Historical Accuracy In Film?

On the evening after the Oscars I got involved in a discussion about the historical bona fides of several of the best picture nominees. For the most part, people fell into two camps: 1) The ‘It’s just a movie’ group, or 2) ‘Creative license is dishonest. So who’s right? To a degree, I think both. Four films in particular were the focus of our discussion: Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Django Unchained.

The points of contention with Argo are threefold. The film gives too much credit to the CIA and not enough to the Canadian government which was integral in the rescue of the embassy workers. There was no chase on the tarmac during the final escape. Most of the Iranians are shown as USA hating crazies.

The first two points are absolutely true. If Argo was all you knew of this endeavor, you would think that other than a kindly couple working for their own government who harbored the American fugitives, the Canadians had little to do with the mission. Even our President at the time, Jimmy Carter, disputes this. As far as the tarmac, I find this to be typical creative license. It doesn’t really bother me, but I’m betting it was unnecessary. There was plenty of tension and paranoia in the closing sequence without having airport security trying to jump on the wing of the plane during take off. Really though, that’s a quibble. The more uncomfortable bit is the last point about how the Iranians are represented in the film. Other than the caretaker of the hideout, most of the domestic population is shown as virulently anti-American and out for blood. However, since the portion of the film taking place in Iran is told from the perspective of a small group of terrified Americans, that more or less rang true to me, PC concerns aside. On the plus side, the almost documentary like opening of the film probably informs people in a more efficient and comprehensive way about the history of American/Iranian relations than any other film in recent memory.

Lincoln was considered the early front runner for best picture but apparently ran out of steam down the stretch. Spielberg’s stolid, straight forward telling of the passing of the 13th Amendment and abolishing slavery has accuracy issues of its own. The most recent gripe relates to the way the vote rolled out. In the film, House members from Connecticut are shown voting against the amendment when in fact, they voted for it. This is either a pretty amateurish oversight by the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, or a decision to sell the drama through dramatic license. Either way, it seems like it could have been easily avoided by just moving the roll call around. That would have been inaccurate too, but less offensive than putting state representatives on the wrong side of the ledger. What I found more bothersome about Lincoln was what they left out. Abe is certainly one of our greatest presidents, and he did legitimately abhor slavery. However, he did not believe that black people were on the same level as white people. There are many quotes attributed to Lincoln that refer to these prejudices, including his general belief in segregation. This doesn’t make him any less of a great man, but it does make him a more complicated one, a man of his time, and showcasing that dichotomy would have made for a more interesting film.

Kathryn Bigelow’s bin Laden manhunt film, Zero Dark Thirty is perhaps the most controversial of the bunch. Few argue the over all accuracy of the film except for in one very specific area, torture. The first 30 minutes of ZDT are built around the continual torture of a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist. No one debates whether torture took place, but many believe that the film either condones torture, or at minimum, that it is shown to be effective in bringing bin Laden to justice. I have taken great issue with this point from the beginning of the controversy. First off, the interrogation scenes are disgusting and wince inducing (even Jessica Chastain’s CIA operative can barely stand to look). The lead interrogator (played with great moral ambiguity by Jason Clarke) eventually leaves his position because of the psychic toll being a deliverer of torture takes on him. As far as the point of whether torture helped our government find bin Laden, the suspect is shown giving not one shred of evidence while being tortured. It is only when they change tactics by giving him food and clothing while performing a bit of trickery do they actually get useful information.

Furthermore, look at this quote by Leon Panetta regarding the film’s use of torture:

“And the real story is that in order to put the puzzle of intelligence together that led us to  Bin Laden, there was a lot of intelligence,” he added. “There were a lot of pieces out there that were part of that puzzle. Yes, some of it came from some of the tactics that were used at that time, interrogation tactics that were used. But the fact is we put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to that.”

That’s pretty much the movie I saw. It’s quite possible that of the four films I mentioned in the introduction, that Zero Dark Thirty was the most accurate in the group.

That brings me to Quentin Tarantino’s wild and wooly spaghetti western/blaxploitation homage concerning slavery, Django Unchained. Discussing a Tarantino film on the basis of accuracy is pretty silly on the face of it. This is the guy who had Hitler shot to death and burned to the ground in a French movie theater at the close of his last film, Inglourious Basterds. Still, there are legitimate inaccuracies in Django that are fair to mention. There is almost no historical record of ‘Mandingo‘ fights like the one that takes place on Leonardo Dicaprio’s Candy Land plantation in Django. There is a disturbingly funny scene that shows a hapless group of klansmen discussing their hoods while searching for runaway slaves. It’s an entertaining bit. However, there is one problem. The KKK did not take any significant form until after slavery was abolished. I suspect that Django got a free pass because no one really takes a Tarantino movie all that seriously anyway. They go for the over the top violence and the colorful dialogue. Fair or not, he’s just held to a lower standard.

So what do we make of all this? I think when most of us go to see a movie we don’t necessarily expect a history lesson, we go to be entertained. To one degree or another, all four of these films have been deemed pretty effective in that regard. While it’s certainly worth discussing these inaccuracies for the sake of the historical record, I would question anyone who would expect to get complete transparency from a cinematically told 2 hour piece of celluloid. Characters are condensed, events are simplified, and scenes are dramatized.

In short, these films are not documentaries or history books. And even if they were, how trustworthy would they be? Documentaries are filmed by and books are written by people with their own perspective on what is important to share. Characters are condensed, events are simplified, and scenes are dramatized, although typically on a more modest level. Let’s all adjust our expectations accordingly.

You can watch the clip below (Courtesy of CNN) of a recent interview with Jimmy Carter about the historic accuracy of Argo:

Watch the clip below courtesy of CNN:

Author: David Phillips

What say you, the people?