Is it okay to like Ava DuVernay‘s Selma even though by some accounts it misrepresents the role that President Lyndon Johnson played in the Civil Rights movement, portraying him as more an impediment than a facilitator of progress? And is it okay to like Clint Eastwood‘s American Sniper even though it basically disregards overwhelming evidence that Chris Kyle was not quite as upstanding as he appears in the movie?
I hope so because, in both cases, I do.
There have been questions about the historical accuracy of a lot of narrative movies this season, not just Selma and Sniper (which happened to have back-to-back AFI Fest world premieres on Nov. 11). The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Unbroken, Foxcatcher, Mr. Turner and Get On Up are also the 2014 films based on real people and events that have been examined closely under the microscope of the media — and, undoubtedly, their awards season competitors — for errors and omissions. Selma and Sniper, however, have attracted particular interest and scrutiny, perhaps because of their hot-button subjects and subject matters, and because many people connected to them are still alive and expect them to represent events precisely the way that they remember them happening.
Read more The Making of ‘American Sniper’
But when it comes to narrative films, total fidelity to the historical record is an unreasonable standard. Just like casting couches and backstabbing, taking liberties with “true stories” has always been a part of the movie business — and always will be. Why? Because it is literally impossible to tell a story about any compelling person or event in just a couple of hours without selectively excluding, consolidating, re-ordering, re-framing or even adding some things. That being the case, should doing those things disqualify a movie from consideration for an Oscar? In other words, should voters skip over Selma and/or Sniper on their best picture ballots and only consider narrative movies about people who are long dead (The Imitation Game), are still alive and have endorsed their portrayal (The Theory of Everything) or never actually existed in reality at all (Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash)?
That’s up to each Academy member, of course. But before they cast their votes, they might remember that films with deviations from the historical record were nominated by their predecessors in a pre-24/7-media/pre-Internet world — and sometimes won — without anyone making much of a fuss over them at all.
For instance, 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola, the second of many biopics to win best picture, is largely about the Dreyfus Affair, a widely-covered miscarriage of justice that involved the scapegoating of a Jewish officer in the French Army for a treasonous crime that he did not actually commit — and yet the film features not a single use or derivative of the word “Jew.”
The most celebrated moment of 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees features Gary Cooper delivering Lou Gehrig‘s legendary farewell speech — but it isn’t the actual speech that Gehrig gave. The most quoted portion of it (“Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth”) was moved from the beginning of the speech to the end to make the moment more dramatic.
1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank centers on Anne Frank and her diary — and yet the way that the diary is introduced in the film is completely inaccurate. The diary was, in fact, given to Anne on her thirteenth birthday, which took place before the family went into hiding, not after it, as is depicted in the film for dramatic effect.
The T.E. Lawrence portrayed in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia may have physically resembled the man himself, but his character and actions were so changed for dramatic purposes that Lawrence’s sole surviving sibling declared, “I should not have recognized my own brother.”
And, it turns out, the most famous line from 1976’s All the President’s Men — “Follow the money” — was never actually spoken by Deep Throat or anyone at all.
Most people take no great issue with those deviations from the historical record because they accept that those deviations were made to make it easier for viewers to follow and appreciate the core of the stories their filmmakers are trying to tell. (The exception is the Zola case, an example of pure pre-World War II cowardice.)
Passionate debates about these sorts of films — which some refer to as docudramas — became more common post-Vietnam and post-Watergate as Americans’ faith in their government and other institutions of power that they had long trusted began to wane. (The driving fear, for many, is always that the film version will become the authoritative version — the historical memory — especially among moviegoers who do not remember the actual events.) And as studios increasingly began to realize that films about serious subject matter would be more likely to generate awards attention if released late in the year, shortly before ballots go out to Academy members, these debates increasingly began to take place during the Oscar season.
An early example is Mike Nichols‘ 1983 film Silkwood, for which Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen wrote the screenplay. Karen Silkwood, played by Meryl Streep, worked at a factory that turned plutonium into fuel rods for nuclear reactors; she began to raise concerns about the safety of the facility; and then died in a car accident while en route to meet a New York Times reporter.
Ironically, few took greater issue with the film than the Times itself, which ran an op-ed entitled “The Chicanery of Silkwood” right in the thick of that year’s Oscar race. The Times argued: “By using real names, the film purports to be a documentary account. But it makes only gestures toward presenting all facets of the case… The documentary is a real medium of journalism; the docudrama usurps its authenticity, just as would an advertisement written to be indistinguishable from a news column… Real names, people and places are not common property that can be taken and remolded at will by thesis-builders. They should be reported with respect for the evidence in its own right.”
Just a few weeks later, Silkwood landed five noms, including best director — but not best picture.
That controversy paled in comparison with another that came less than a decade later, in 1991, over Oliver Stone‘s JFK. Already a divisive figure because of his films about the Vietnam War and his outspoken political views, Stone, inspired by distrust in his government and Jim Garrison‘s 1988 autobiography On the Trail of the Assassins, made a film questioning the Warren Commission’s official story about the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy. It centered around Garrison, a Louisiana D.A. who was the only man who ever attempted to prosecute someone for Kennedy’s murder — but who had also, according to the The New York Times, “threatened and bribed witnesses, who then lied in court… and concealed the results of a polygraph test that showed one witness… to be lying,” leading a jury to rule against him in less than an hour.
Even before filming was done, Stone told the Dallas Morning News that JFK would be “a history lesson,” causing many people to panic. The outcry only grew louder as the film’s release approached and then finally arrived, whereupon Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan complained that “certain characters are composites, situations are fudged, conflicting testimony ignored and Garrison’s summation… lengthened to contain information not uncovered until years later.” Tom Wicker of The New York Times added, in another story penned during the thick of the Oscar race, that the film “treat[s] matters that are wholly speculative as fact and truth, in effect rewriting history,” and worried that “is all too likely to be taken as the final, unquestioned explanation” by many people too young to remember Nov. 22, 1963.
Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, in his four-star review of the film, offered a counter-argument. “These points are no doubt well-taken,” he granted, but, he added, “I believe they are irrelevant to the film, which is not a documentary, not a historical study and not a courtroom presentation, but a movie… People go to the movies to be told a story… There are many facts, factoids, fictions and distortions in JFK, all used in the service of the story. To dissect the movie like a documentary is pointless.”
Despite this storm of controversy, which continued through the nomination voting period, JFK wound up with eight noms, including best picture.
Over the years, other contentious debates have arisen about depictions of history in the movies. Sometimes these quarrels didn’t seem to hurt a film’s Oscar prospects. In 1995, Mel Gibson‘s Braveheart was picked apart by historians like vultures pick apart a carcass, “starting with the fact that Isabella, Princess of Wales (played by Sophie Marceau), did not come from France until two or three years after Wallace’s execution and therefore could not have had an affair with [William Wallace].” But this didn’t stop the film from landing ten noms and winning five, including best picture.
Other times, the quarrels proved quite damaging: Norman Jewison‘s 1999 film The Hurricane, the story of a boxing champion, played by Denzel Washington, who was convicted and imprisoned for a triple homicide he did not commit, was a frontrunner for best picture before it was attacked for inventing a racist police detective character. Washington told the Los Angeles Times at the time, “We all know how things work. I’ve been in three films about real people — Cry Freedom, Malcolm X and this one — and in all the films there was a controversy. Any time you base things on a true story it offends someone.” The film ended up with just a single nom, for best actor.
Another famous case, in 1999, involved Michael Mann‘s The Insider, a film about the story behind an episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes. A reporter/segment producer for the venerated TV newsmagazine secured an interview for famed correspondent Mike Wallace with Jeffrey Wigand, a former research-and-development head of a major tobacco company who was willing, at great risk to himself, to blow the whistle on his ex-employers for having knowingly lied when they testified before congress that they did not believe cigarettes were addictive. But then CBS — which was angling to be sold at the time and didn’t want to jeopardize the deal — spiked the piece, airing only a “watered-down” segment in which Wigand didn’t even appear. Wallace and 60 Minutes creator/producer Don Hewitt apparently assented to the situation without great protest. The full segment eventually aired — but only after Wigand’s claims had already become public through a lawsuit.
According to The New York Times, Wallace, after learning that The Insider was being made, persuaded Mann to send him an early draft of the script, whereupon the newsman became outraged by the portrait of himself as, in his view, a “soulless and cowardly laggard who lost his moral compass until Lowell set me back on the straight path.” He demanded changes — some of which he got — and then mounted “an aggressive public effort to dispel any notion that he ever acquiesced to management’s decision to kill the interview.” He asked the Times reporter, as only a living subject of a docudrama could, “If this is entertainment, why does he use my name and have words come out of my mouth that I never would have said?” Hewitt was also angry, but he took the controversy more in stride, saying, “I told Mike, ‘It’s a movie, OK?… Real life has a lot of shades of gray, and movies have black and white, even when they’re in color.”
Mann responded to the Los Angeles Daily News, “[Screenwriter] Eric Roth and I decided we wanted to do a drama and not just a docudrama. I didn’t want it to be objective, I wanted to take you on a ride… This is the picture I chose to make.” And he told another interviewer, “In the realm of drama, you change everything. You change everything to have it mean exactly the same thing it meant before. You do all the typical things. You collapse time, you combine characters, you overlay dramatic events.”
In the end, the film received seven noms — including best picture — but it won none.
Another landmark controversy centered around Ron Howard‘s A Beautiful Mind in 2001. It was already the best picture Oscar front-runner when it started to face incoming fire about omitting some potentially unflattering details about its subject, the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, played by Russell Crowe. Among other things: documented examples of Nash behaving in adulterous, homosexual and anti-Semitic ways.
Sylvia Nasar, who wrote the book that inspired the film, granted that Nash did once write an anti-Semitic letter, but insisted that it was during an intense period of paranoid schizophrenia. The filmmakers, meanwhile, acknowledged taking liberties with the historical record to The New York Times, but insisted that they had done so with the approval of Nash and his wife.
That was a poor excuse in the view of Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Maxwell King, who wrote, during the period of Oscar voting, “They seem to think that’s just fine because they did so with the approval of both the subject and the author of the book. What this reveals is a lack of standards and ethics in the film industry that, if replicated in the fields of history or journalism, would have produced a scandal of the first order.” He continued, “Evidently, because it’s ‘just a movie,’ members of the filmmaking industry and the public seem to think that this is all right. Granted, filmmaking is generally considered to be entertainment, and so viewers tend to give it very great leeway where truth and believability are concerned. But when films purport to tell true stories — especially the life stories of living people — they should be held to a higher standard.” He urged Academy members, “Award the Oscar for best picture to some candidate other than A Beautiful Mind.”
But despite all of the back-and-forth, the film garnered eight noms and won four — including, yes, best picture.
Similar brouhahas have engulfed just about every film about serious subject matter from Oliver Stone (1986’s Platoon, 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, 1995’s Nixon), Spike Lee (1989’s Do the Right Thing, 1992’s Malcolm X) and Steven Spielberg (1993’s Schindler’s List, 1997’s Amistad, 2005’s Munich, 2012’s Lincoln) — and, more recently, 2010’s The King’s Speech (accused of overlooking information that suggests King George VI was, like his brother, an anti-Semite), 2012’s Argo (accused of fabricating the actual drama of the great escape) and 2012’s Lincoln (which inaccurately shows two members of the U.S. House from Connecticut opposing the passage of Thirteenth Amendment), 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty (accused of condoning torture).
What all of this has made clear is that someone will always find something to object to in narrative films about real people and events.
One way around this is to do what Lee Daniels’ The Butler did in 2013. While the film was inspired by a real person, the writer and director gave the main character a different name, which freed them up to take liberties with its story. The problem, of course, is that it’s often the very association with a real person and event that is at the core of such a film’s appeal — which might explain, in part, why The Butler ended up with not a single nom.
The bottom line is that narrative films about real people and events that use actual names aren’t going away anytime soon. And that leads to the question at the heart of all of this: Where is the line between an acceptable and an unacceptable level of deviation from the historical record?
In my opinion, the answer can be found by asking yourself an obviously subjective question: Were the deviations made to make the overall story more accessible and understandable or were they made to deliberately distort and mislead people about what really happened? If the answer is the latter, then I’m not sure that a film is worthy of support. But if the answer is the former, then I’m comfortable allying myself with such a film.
I don’t believe that Selma screenwriter Paul Webb or DuVernay set out to make Johnson a villain, nor do I believe that they did so. I think that they set out to emphasize the extent of the obstacles that King faced in his dealings with white people, even those who theoretically supported his agenda. While there is no reason to believe that Johnson ordered the FBI wiretaps on King be sent to his wife, it is true that Johnson wasn’t always as supportive of King’s push for voting rights as he ultimately came to be. So the movie’s portrayal of Johnson during the relatively brief period it dramatizes may not be all that wrong. His attitude, like many Americans’ at the time, was evolving.
Similarly, I don’t think that American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall or Eastwood set out to make Kyle a saint, nor do I believe that they did so. It’s hard enough to tell one story in two hours and 14 minutes, let alone many, and the one that they chose to focus on was Kyle’s time in Iraq and how it impacted his family back home. It’s not like the film spends tons of time with him after the war, when some of his less impressive behavior took place; in fact, the movie’s post-war scenes amount to just a few minutes of screen time. And Kyle wasn’t the first — nor the last — war hero to make mistakes after his service. But does anyone truly believe that that’s what he will or should be remembered for?
In short, I feel that it’s fair and reasonable to expect filmmakers to strive to get to the essence of the “truth” in their narrative films, but not to expect them to present everything exactly as it happened. The Selma and Sniper teams might have bolstered their case for deviating from the historical record, to the extent that they did, if they’d stepped forward to explain their decisions in more polished ways than they did — DuVernay over Twitter and an off-the-cuff at a Q&A, the Sniper folks not at all. But, as far as the Oscars go, Academy members are not asked to judge how closely a film hews to the letter of the historical record; they are asked to evaluate how effectively a film tells the story that it is trying to tell. I would submit that, at that, both of these films succeeded beyond measure.