Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood's 'American Sniper'
Reality TV isn't really real. That previous sentence shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that's ever seen an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians
, Real Housewives
or Love & Hip Hop
. Almost every one of them use contrived and created circumstances manipulated by selective editing to tell a narrative. All reality shows are based around a dark trinity: fucking, fighting and humiliation. The television series that succeed have at least one of those qualities. And in order to have one of those things, they have to cast people as characters who're either assholes, dysfunctional or both. Incidentally, this dynamic is also the basis for a lot of the mainstream coverage of politics (i.e., sex scandals, process stories about gridlock and infighting, and the gaffes of politicians who're either assholes or borderline nuts).
When it comes to film, realism and fidelity to source material usually takes a back seat to artistic license. The terms "based on" and "inspired by" are used when liberties are taken (e.g., the 1995 adaptation of The Scarlett Letter starring Demi Moore is only credited as being "freely adapted from" Nathaniel Hawthorne, since it deviates so wildly from his novel). The reason for this is that a film, like a lot of art, is about a perspective that fits a narrative conducive to the medium. And it's a perspective within a commercial product. The first concern of a Hollywood production is making something that's viable to an audience, even if it means changing the story. There's even some debate over whether documentaries have to be technically true in context and details, or just accurate in portraying the vision and point of view of the artist about a subject.
However, when a film deals with real people and real events, is there a duty to portray the events factually? Or is obsessing over details "nitpicking" that gets in the way of telling a story and conveying the particular message and themes of the artist inspired by history? These questions are at the center of recent controversies dealing with biopics that present versions of historical events that many see as manipulative or outright false. Follow beneath the fold for more ....
"As soon as the writer tells us what Napoleon murmured to Josephine in bed and how Josephine’s heart went pitpat, we know we’re nearer Oz than Paris."
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Fact And/Or/Plus Fiction
Telling a story using real people has been done for a very long time. For example, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
isn't exactly historically accurate (i.e., Caesar's last words probably weren't "Et tu, Brute?"). But the play uses an outline of history to expound on themes of honor, ambition and betrayal.
Given that there was more than a few centuries separating late 16th century England from ancient Rome, there probably weren't that many people picketing the Globe Theater for an unfair portrayal of Cassius and Brutus. However, modern biopics are usually based around people and controversy from recent memory. That makes the situation a ripe one for disagreement. And it leads to an argument over whether there's a line as to what events you can invent or words you can put in the mouth of a fictionalized version of a real person?
Some will argue that many will form their view of history based on the inaccuracies in movies and TV shows. Others will respond that is not the problem or responsibility of movie-makers, since cinema is not claiming the mantle of history, but just trying to tell a story.
From Bilge Ebiri at Vulture:
These movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. (And even documentaries don’t always need to be totally accurate — just ask Werner Herzog.) They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves — to the demands of drama, to the demands of (yes) entertainment, and even to the demands of the broader truths they’re trying to evoke. There are limits to that, for sure: A movie about Hitler that tried to play down or deny the Holocaust might not exactly fly. An Obama biopic that shows him as a secret Muslim would be rightfully ridiculed, though I’m sure a certain segment of the population would embrace it. (But let’s not give Dinesh D’Souza any ideas.)
- When it comes to the subject of Clint Eastwood's newest film, American Sniper, everyone can agree that Bradley Cooper's Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL and a sniper that served four tours in Iraq. Anything beyond that is a matter of opinion. The movie is based on Kyle's autobiography, where he's described as a "legend" and the most lethal sniper in the history of the American military. Whether the stories told by Kyle were true or tall tales has been a matter of much discussion since the release of the film. Also, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall present a much kinder depiction of Kyle that many find at odds with Kyle's public persona (with Kyle being described by some as an "American Psycho" and a "hated filled killer"), and invent situations that did not happen in Iraq to create tension and a goal for Kyle to overcome in the film's climax. The film uses those elements to create a nuanced view of Kyle and the effects of war. Where Kyle argued the righteousness of his actions and the policy that those actions supported, Eastwood and Hall argue that it took a toll on Kyle that he either couldn't recognize or wouldn't acknowledge.
From Scott Foundas at the Variety:
“There was something there I felt some people missed,” Eastwood told Rolling Stone writer Tim Cahill in 1985. “One critic said Dirty Harry shot the guy at the end with such glee that he enjoyed it. There was no glee in it at all, there was a sadness about it. Watch the film again and you’ll see that.” Eastwood could offer the same proviso about the climax of “Sniper,” in which a single bullet from Kyle’s rifle travels more than 2,000 yards to kill a Syrian-born ISIS sniper named Moustafa. Last month, at the movie’s New York premiere, some members of the audience applauded Moustafa’s demise, while others visibly shuddered, and it is to the film’s credit that it allows for both reactions. Chris Kyle saw the world in clearly demarcated terms of good and evil, and “American Sniper” suggests that such dichromatism may have been key to both his success and survival; on the battlefield, doubt is akin to death. But Eastwood (and his screenwriter, Jason Hall) sees only shades of gray. Repeatedly, he shows us ordinary Iraqis caught in the crossfire of the war, while Moustafa himself, the movie’s nominal bogeyman, is shown to be Kyle’s doppelganger, with his own wife and infant child at home and a similarly resolute sense of purpose.
Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay's 'Selma'
- There have been many articles written in recent days as to whether the controversy surrounding Ava DuVernay's Selma will have an effect on the film's ability to both be nominated and win Oscars. The film was snubbed by the Producers Guild, which is one of the early predictors for the awards season. At issue is whether the depiction of President Lyndon Johnson is so at odds with history as to be a malicious lie? Selma is the first major motion picture with King as the central figure, and it has been lauded by critics. The production's accomplishment becomes even more interesting when you find out they couldn't use any of King’s actual speeches in the film because the rights to them have been licensed to Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks. But the use of L.B.J. in Selma has raised hackles from historians and former aides of the President. The film either presents Johnson as dragging his feet on civil rights, performing actions to impede King, or erases the historical record between L.B.J. and King. The most contentious and controversial event in the movie is a scene where it's strongly suggested Johnson ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to send secretly reported tapes of M.L.K.'s infidelity to Coretta Scott King. There is no evidence Johnson ever did anything of the sort, and M.L.K.'s own words don't agree with the movie's view of Johnson. For her part, DuVernay has said she's not going to argue about history, but wishes the film wouldn't be reduced to just its depiction of President Johnson. Others have claimed there is a tinge sexism and racism against a black female director and the backlash against the film is motivated by it showing black characters being at the center of their own struggle and not being helped by a "great white father."
From Jennifer Schuessler at the New York Times:
The criticism of the film’s depiction of the president has come not just from Johnson loyalists, but from some historians who said they admired other aspects of the film. “Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking,” Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” said in an interview.
“But with the portrayal of L.B.J.,” she continued, “I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’ ”
- The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch has come under criticism for how it changes events in the life of computer scientist Alan Turing. The film is based on Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, but takes liberties in how it depicts Turing's sexuality, social awkwardness and even the nature of his work in cryptography. Hodges himself objected to the film exaggerating aspects of Turing's love affair with a woman (Joan Clarke played by Keira Knightley) and inventing out of whole cloth a relationship with another historical figure. Others have praised the film's message, while acknowledging the changes as necessary for the format of a film.
- Wrestler Mark Schultz posted a series of angry tweets against Foxcatcher because the film hints there might have been a sexual relationship between Schultz (played by Channing Tatum) and John du Pont (Steve Carell). Schultz called the film "a sick and insulting lie."
- Angelina Jolie's Unbroken is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Several critics have complained the film is "watered down" and fails to convey the extent of horror and torture Zamperini faced at the Japanese as a prisoner of war. The movie also leaves out a significant piece of the book, which is Zamperini's religious conversion after the war and forgiveness of his Japanese captors. Those events are reduced to on-screen text at the end of the movie.
- At the end of last month, there were reports the Egyptian and Moroccan governments had decided to ban Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings for historical inaccuracy and presenting a "Zionist view." Egypt has previously banned Darren Aronofsky's Noah and DreamWork's Prince of Egypt. So Egypt is not a big fan of the Old Testament. Scott's Exodus also stirred controversy for the decision to cast white actors in an ancient Egyptian setting. Scott defended the decision as being a matter of economics, saying that a non-white cast wouldn't get financing. Rupert Murdoch, whose 20th Century Fox financed Exodus, threw more fuel to the fire by claiming the casting decision was correct since Egyptians are white.
Of course, this is not a new issue that has just bubbled up this year. Here are some films of note that have encountered similar questions of historical accuracy.
- Pocahontas is the 33rd film in the Disney animated canon. To say the film is not based on actual history would be the same to acknowledge that water is wet. Beyond the lack of helpful forest animals and talking trees during song and dance numbers, many historians doubt John Smith's story of being saved by Pocahontas (also known by the names Matoaka and Amonute). There wasn't a romance between her and Smith. And even if you accept Smith's tale as gospel, Pocahontas was around 11-years-old during the encounter. Although, Disney has never claimed the film represents historical fact, but is a story "based on the fable and folklore that surround" the legend of Pocahontas. However, the film has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes about Native Americans.
- The Oscar hopes of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty are believed to have taken a hit because of the controversy surrounding the film's portrayal of torture and its use in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The film was denounced as endorsing torture by some (including Senator John McCain), while others (like director Michael Moore) praised the movie for depicting the brutality of torture as it existed.
- Steven Spielberg's Lincoln ran into arguments similar to the ones that surround Selma. Some critics and historians objected to the lack of black voices, such as Fredrick Douglas, in the passage of the 13th Amendment. Furthermore, it was claimed the film presented an outmoded vision of history with a great white man as savior.
- The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a scathing column castigating The King's Speech as a well-made "falsification of history" that invests in the British royal family's "post-fabricated myth of its participation in 'Britain's finest hour.'"
- Michael Bay made a movie about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Need I say more?
- David Fincher's The Social Network was knocked for some of the deviations taken in telling Mark Zuckerberg's story. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay posits the creation of Facebook as being caused by Zuckerberg's rejection by a woman and inability to have friends. The ultimate irony being that a man who created a social network that's connected billions of "friends" has none of his own. However, Zuckerberg and others have denied that characterization and dispute the film represents anything near the reality of what actually happened. However, Sorkin won an Oscar for his work, and has stated in interviews his fidelity was not to the truth, but to the story.
Mark Zuckerberg: Where do you wanna start? I mean, I don’t know. It’s interesting what stuff they focused on getting right. Like every single fleece and shirt I had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own. You know, so there’s all this stuff that they got wrong, and a bunch of random details that they got right. The thing that I think is actually most thematically interesting that they got wrong is—the whole framing of the movie, kind of the way that it starts is, I’m with this girl who doesn’t exist in real life, who dumps me, which has happened to me in real life, a lot—and basically to frame it as if the whole reason for making Facebook and building something was because I wanted to get girls or wanted to get into some sort of social institution. And the reality for people who know me is that I’ve actually been dating the same girl since before I started Facebook, so obviously that’s not a part of it. But I think it’s such a big disconnect from the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley—building stuff. They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.
- Best picture winner Braveheart plays very fast and loose with the history surrounding William Wallace. There is no evidence jus primae noctis—the right of a Lord to take the virginity of serf maidens within his lands—was ever asserted by nobility, or that King Edward Longshanks ever had a plan to breed Scots out of Scotland. King Edward II may or may not have been gay, and had at least one illegitimate child. Isabella of France was 9-years-old when Wallace was killed, and was definitely not carrying Wallace's illegitimate child. At the Battle of Stirling Bridge, there actually was a bridge present during the fight, unlike what's seen in the movie. Also, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace never met, and Bruce never betrayed Wallace. Mel Gibson acknowledged all of these changes from history, but defended them in the name of "cinematic whimsy."