Washington-set films may fudge facts, but good ones speak to larger truths

In Washington, watching fact-based political movies has become a sport all its own, with viewers hyper-alert to mistakes, composite characters or real stories hijacked by political agendas. But what audiences often fail to take into account is that a too-literal allegiance to the facts can sometimes obscure a larger truth.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Director Doug Liman has felt the moral presence of his late father more keenly than usual this year.

Liman, whose credits include "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," makes his first foray into fact-based drama this fall with a new film, "Fair Game" -- the story of former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson; his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson; and the events of 2003, when her identity as a CIA operative was leaked after her husband wrote an op-ed criticizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

While making "Fair Game," Liman said, he was acutely aware of how his father, Arthur -- who served as chief counsel for the Senate committee formed to investigate the Iran-contra scandal -- felt about politically inspired stories, especially Oliver Stone's "JFK."

In that 1991 film, Stone mixed archival material, reenactment, conspiratorial speculation and outright fantasy to cast doubt on the Warren Commission's conclusions about President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Nearly two decades later, as "Fair Game" was about to make its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Liman vividly recalled his father's reaction to "JFK" as "an abdication of Oliver Stone's responsibility as a filmmaker." In dramatizing recent, politically charged events in "Fair Game," Liman said, "I definitely felt the pressure of my father every step of the way."

No doubt that pressure will intensify when "Fair Game" arrives in theaters in November, as Washington audiences charge up their BlackBerrys and prepare to truth-squad the movie's tiniest details. (The film stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as Valerie and Joe Wilson.) They'll certainly apply the same scrutiny to "Casino Jack," George Hickenlooper's upcoming film starring Kevin Spacey as disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and, further down the road, Aaron Sorkin's proposed movie about John Edwards.

As dramatizations of Washington stories, these projects join a special subset of politically oriented movies -- including "Breach," "Charlie Wilson's War," "Thirteen Days" and Stone's "Nixon" and "W." -- that are received with a combination of relish and apprehension by local filmgoers, many of whom are likely to have witnessed the events onscreen firsthand. Much as people in Detroit critique movies about carmaking, or lion tamers pick apart movies about the circus, political insiders see movies about true events in Washington as twofold entertainments, first in the theaters and later during the parlor game of spot-the-error (or hear-the-ax-grinding).

But every once in a while, a film survives the vetting and emerges as a tacitly approved version of true events -- an interpretive history far more enduring and powerful than even the most rigorously researched, authoritative text. In the annals of Washington's most sacred narratives, none is more venerated than "All the President's Men," which since its release in 1976 has held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier. Among filmmakers, "All the President's Men" is considered the ur-text of fact-based political drama; Peter Morgan, who wrote "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon," calls it "a masterpiece."

It barely matters that the film's most iconic piece of dialogue -- "Follow the money" -- was never spoken in real life. According to Bob Woodward, whose source Deep Throat utters the deathless line in the film, the quote aptly captures everything his source, FBI associate director W. Mark Felt, was telling him at the time. "It all condensed down to that," Woodward says. Even the most scrupulously footnoted book, he adds, can't be 100 percent accurate. "No matter how well reported or carefully done, it's not an engineer's drawing of what happened."

Indeed, faithful as "All the President's Men" is to Woodward and Carl Bernstein's journalistic process in discovering how a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate led to the White House, the film itself has been accused of its own brand of mythmaking. Many observers have criticized the movie for advancing the tidy but reductive idea that it was two reporters who brought down a president, rather than a far more complicated -- and less telegenic -- skein of efforts by members of Congress, federal prosecutors and the FBI.

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Myth or reality? That's the question posed by movies based on true events, and it's a conundrum that Washington officialdom seems to have a perennial problem in reconciling. Never has the political establishment been as unsettled as in 1991, when "JFK" hit the screen. In bold, bravura strokes, the film turned settled history on its ear, suggesting that a malign conspiracy of political, criminal and corporate interests killed John F. Kennedy in 1963. While many viewers saw "JFK" as a technically brilliant, expressionistic portrait of generational angst and American paranoid style, just as many observers were alarmed that, precisely because the film was so accomplished, Stone's version of history would come to be accepted as fact.

Subsequently, Stone went on to make "Nixon," a Shakespearean portrait of the brooding former president and, more recently, "W.," about George W. Bush, both of which took their own liberties with imagined episodes and dialogue. But by then, viewers were more familiar with Stone's authorial style, which favors bright lines and (often wholly imagined) emblematic scenes over messier shades of gray.

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