With regard to “Selma,” the timeliness factor is obvious. But I’d like to suggest that if awards-season voters are interested in rewarding a movie that helps us better understand contemporary controversies, they should also consider David Fincher’s twisty thriller “Gone Girl” (based on the book by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay).
For those of you who haven’t seen it (spoilers ahead!), “Gone Girl” revolves around a woman who fakes her own kidnapping and murder in order to punish her husband for failing to live up to her expectations. Amy Dunne, the titular girl, also falsely accuses two men of rape and uses a pregnancy to trap her husband Nick into staying with him after she returns from her fake kidnapping. Transfixed by the lurid details of the case, the national media hounds Nick, essentially convicting him of the crime before he’s even arrested.
This sequence of events was too much for some. Before the film was even released, some were criticizing the very idea of portraying a woman who falsely accused a man of rape, citing stats that show such claims are very low. “The Guardian” suggested that the “recycling of rape myths is a disgusting distortion.” A Buzzfeed reporter wrote that the plot is nothing more than “caricatures of straight men’s biggest fears about women” and that the movie “gives men license to say, Look! Women are crazy!”
That all sounds very problematic! So it was something of a stroke of cosmic luck that “Gone Girl” debuted just weeks before the release of “Rolling Stone’s” groundbreaking story, “A Rape on Campus.” A story that became a huge national scandal. A story that was a fixture on cable networks and hugely praised by journalists on social media. A story that, as some excellent work by The Post revealed, was horribly reported and was centered on a woman who seems to have faked a claim of vicious gang rape in order to win the affection of a boy she had a crush on.
In other words, “Gone Girl” is not just timely; it was actually kind of prescient.
I want to focus less on the prurient details of the U-Va. rape hoax, however, and instead highlight the role the media played in propagating the story. As I noted in my own review of the film, Fincher and Flynn heap special scorn on the “cable news vultures” circling Nick despite the fact that he has yet to be charged with any crime. “A Rape on Campus” — a story that received hours of airtime and spawned an almost uncountable number of think pieces — really helped Fincher and Flynn prove the point about the dangers of sensationalism in the media.
“Rolling Stone,” obviously, bears the brunt of the blame; as Jeffrey Goldberg noted after being called out for calling the work astonishing, “it never struck me that a magazine with fact-checkers on staff wouldn’t use them.” But this is by no means the first time the national media got suckered by a story that’s too good to be true — a story that so perfectly comported to a preferred narrative that it was pushed with reckless abandon. It’s almost as if they’re trying to sabotage themselves by latching on to untruths. As Scott Alexander noted in a lengthy essay in which he reminded readers of Tawana Brawley and the Duke lacrosse case, “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.”
Like the best art, “Gone Girl” helps us understand the world in which we live. Sometimes, we need to show a little skepticism when confronted by a story that seems too outrageous to be true. The narrative cannot be allowed to get in the way of facts.
*Interestingly, “Selma” seems to be fading from contention, at least in part because whoever was in charge of their awards campaign did not strike while the iron was hot. Timeliness! Just one of the many dumb things that sway Oscar voters. (See also in the category of “dumb things that will sway Oscar voters”: whether or not “Selma” was “historically accurate.”)