It’s not uncommon for artists (and the public relations departments charged with promoting their work) to tout not just the power of art to transport us emotionally, but to wave their research and attention to factual detail as credentials. Judging by letters to The Washington Post about the debate over “Selma,” at least some audiences have interpreted this to believe that art about historical events and real people have the same obligations to strict accuracy as non-fiction and journalism.
But it would be unfortunate if it turned out that Academy voters had adopted the metrics recommended by a former aide to Lyndon Baines Johnson in these pages and rejected “Selma” and other fictional movies solely on the grounds that they are, in fact, fiction. Instead, the choices writers and directors make to divert from the details of fact should be weighed along with how well they remove us from our own era, and how powerfully they communicate the pressures and joys of circumstances not our own.
I spent last week at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif., getting a preview of many of the new shows that will air this spring. At the presentation for “Texas Rising,” an upcoming History Channel miniseries about the Texas Revolution, director Roland Joffé offered a rather different definition of fiction’s obligations than the one that has been debated in recent weeks.
“You can do history as archaeology, which I think is rather dull, or you look at something else,” Joffé argued, “You say, our job is to transport the spectator into the state where he understands what it was like or she understands what it was like to be there. That’s really the most important thing…When I did the movie called ‘The Killing Fields,’ one of the journalists who had been involved in the real situation was asked by a panel of other journalists a guy called Jon Swain. They said, ‘Well, Jon, we’ve read what actually happened. We’ve seen the film, and the film is slightly different, isn’t it?’ And Jon Swain said a very important thing. He said, ‘Yes, it is.’ But the important thing about the film is the film showed you what it felt like, and that’s what we do when we do history. We’re saying to people, ‘This is what it felt like to be alive at that time with that degree of heat, that dust and horses and the passion and the historical events going on.'”
There’s still room to consider factual accuracy in this equation.
As I wrote last week, my objection to the way “Selma” simplifies President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s position on the Voting Rights Act has less to do with concern about Johnson’s hugely complex legacy and more for the way it smoothed the rough edges off a fascinating partnership between two wily actors. But that hardly undoes this rich, complex movie. To my reading, some of the ways “The Imitation Game” changed history made for an effective new framing of the costs of anti-gay sentiment, though I understand why others feel differently. I was struck by the uncanny and powerful air of ill-health and perversion in “Foxcatcher,” which Miller didn’t necessarily need to juice with suggestions of homoeroticism. And as I’ll explain at greater length next week, “American Sniper” is a bad, leaden movie even before we get to Clint Eastwood’s edits to Kyle’s self-created legend.
The fact-checking of fiction in this awards season steams from a recognition and understandable concern that film is a powerful medium that can all too easily supplant drier presentations of history. But shrinking the range of artistic license won’t make badly-written or poorly-taught history any more compelling. We should talk about how to remedy those problems too, rather than relying solely on asking more of films than we ought to.
And tomorrow, let’s hope that the members of the Academy consider the historical record and the extent to which the movies under consideration do or don’t hew to it not as historians, not as journalists, and in the case of Selma, certainly not as keepers of President Johnson’s flame, but in the context of their particular profession.