A Splice Of History

Forrest Gump
In "Forrest Gump," the title character, played by Tom Hanks, appears to be shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy. (Paramount Pictures via Associated Press)

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

Princess Diana and Robert Kennedy won't receive posthumous nominations for Best Supporting Acting roles at next year's Oscars -- but maybe they ought to.

In the movies "The Queen" and "Bobby" real video footage of their public moments figures so significantly, it feels as though both should get star billing. "Death of a President," another recent film, takes the fusion of reality and fiction even further. The British production superimposes a digitally rendered image of President Bush onto a faceless actor, so that the president interacts -- almost surrealistically -- with fictional characters. What makes the synthesis even darker, and what has drawn critical fire, is the movie's grim conceit -- "President Bush" is assassinated shortly after a speaking engagement in Chicago.

Last year's "Good Night, and Good Luck" -- in which David Strathairn plays Edward R. Murrow, the CBS broadcaster who took on communist witch hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s -- also tapped humanity's virtual library. The Wisconsin senator is "played" by McCarthy himself, shown in all his sweaty, bullying glory in the period's 16mm and kinescope film. To integrate the two media, director George Clooney filmed his actors in black and white, suddenly making McCarthy palpably and threateningly real -- and good enough, at least, for a Golden Globe.

There seems to be no end in sight: Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and Steven Soderbergh's upcoming World War II movie, "The Good German," are just two current examples of movies that integrate documentary images with dramatic ones.

Perhaps this postmodern collage is just a way of catching up with pop music, particularly hip-hop, in which "sampling" of previous songs (the musical equivalent of archival footage) has become the new creativity. It's not so unlike rapper Puff Daddy repurposing Sting's 1983 "Every Breath You Take" into "I'll Be Missing You," a tribute to murdered rapper Notorious B.I.G., and Natalie Cole's Grammy-winning "duet" of "Unforgettable" that she did with her deceased father, Nat King Cole.

Using recorded reality for dramatic purposes isn't new in the movies, per se. It seems any film set in the 1960s, for example, will inevitably show some televised moment to authenticate the atmosphere -- Vietnam carpet bombings, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech or flickery excerpts from Abraham Zapruder's 8mm recording of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In recent years, the interaction has evolved. In the 1980s, we watched Steve Martin exchange hard-bitten jabber with Bogey in "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," and in "Zelig," the title character, that unforgettable chameleon-like creation of Woody Allen, glad-hand virtually every significant person in modern history. In 1994, we saw Forrest Gump "meet" Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. (And on the boob tube, we've watched a cavalcade of the famous undead extolling commercial products: Fred Astaire tripping the light fantastic with a Dirt Devil vacuum; James Cagney selling Diet Coke; Audrey Hepburn peddling pants for Gap.)

But what's significant about these movies of late is the way they use archival material. Rather than as gimmickry, or shorthand, filmmakers are choreographing full-on tangos with the past. They're -- almost literally -- dancing cheek to cheek with history.

Movies such as "The Queen," about the power struggle between the British royal family and the general public for stewardship of Diana's memory, and "Bobby," which reimagines events around the last hours of Robert F. Kennedy's life, understand that extended documentary moments, so meaningful in one context, can be rendered just as powerfully in another. Consider the well-known TV interview in which the vulnerable, tremulous Princess Diana speaks of the anguish she suffered in her marriage due to the presence of Camilla Parker Bowles. ("There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.") In "The Queen," not only do we re-experience Diana's confession as strongly as we did before, we see its effect on an entire people and, conversely, its effect on the British Windsors. The royals are so resolutely unmoved by this sentimental rebroadcast, and Diana's legacy at large, that we're stirred into feeling something stronger: How could they be so clueless? We wonder through misty eyes, as Diana becomes the biggest presence in the movie. Hers is the "performance" that sticks most with us as we leave the theater.

In "Bobby," here's the impossibly boyish, idealistic Robert F. Kennedy as he famously opens his quest for the presidency: "I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done."

It's just one of many televised, or filmed, moments from Kennedy's campaign that appear in the movie. At first, Kennedy is seen only as an ethereal presence on the television. But when "he" enters the Ambassador Hotel -- this particular movement played by an actor seen only from behind -- he comes to life. That scene is made even more authentic by the look of adulation on Anthony Hopkins's face (he plays a hotel employee) as he welcomes the senator.

As we watch the candidate deliver his ill-fated victory speech -- moments before his assassination -- the interplay between real footage, our knowledge of what's to come and the dramatic reactions of actors such as Hopkins and William H. Macy make us believe we've witnessed Kennedy ourselves. The emotional jolt we're feeling in that moment is a response to something that happened almost 40 years ago.

How much better this is than watching actors -- no matter how assured -- replaying famous people of the past. In Oliver Stone's 1995 "Nixon," Hopkins can never really make us feel we are in the presence of the former president. And try as he might, Bruce Greenwood in the 2000 Cuban missile crisis picture "Thirteen Days" can never evoke President Kennedy the way actual images can. Playing real life people is so analog. In this digital age, why not roll out the real McCoys? This way, great figures of history can walk among us again.

The cross-pollination of images is such a regular part of our Internet-savvy lives -- right now, with just a few Google clicks, you could watch Vice President Cheney spit out Al Pacino's profanity-laced speech from "Scarface." Despite the questionable taste of showing a real president being killed in "Death of a President," it's gratifying to see filmmakers find greater purpose -- and thoughtful artistry -- in our ever-growing backlog of history. Not only can this development underscore movies as a viable pop-cultural force during a time of changing technology, it gives younger generations a living, breathing link to what might otherwise seem a dusty past.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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