No, this is not my final Oscar Night blog. This is a teaser. We all know how movies tinker loosely with the facts, much of the time. It is a harmless practice, for the most part, in the name of good, or better drama. Drama is the fuel, the engine, of exciting or worthwhile entertainment in theatre, film, or television. So, play with the facts. Fine. Especially when it's fiction. Go ahead, knock yourself out by fudging events the way you see them, you the writer, director, creator, performer.
I've been a DGA member since the early 1980's(Directors Guild of America). I'm a writer, a published novelist, and an actor. I love fiction. My reading and writing is probably ninety-percent fiction. My mom used to say, "... wanna know the truth? Read a novel." I love fiction because there are no boundaries around the truth, nor any in conveying it. If you want your character to swim over Niagara Falls, no problem, Jason Bourne escapes 25 bad guys with machine guns in the most incredible chase scenes ever, great stuff. And that is the way fiction should be and should remain. However, the minute the writer, even the fiction writer, introduces the reality of accurate time and actual geographical place, the writer needs to hold to some truth, some semblance of authenticity.
A few films in this year's batch of Oscar contenders have taken dramatic license to new and damnable levels. The film, Argo, toys with the timing structure of events, of course to heighten the dramatic and hairraising escape of American hostages from Iran. But clearly, fictional filmmaking is a work here to illicit the most dramatic response. Apparently, Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal in Zero Dark Thirty, decided to consolidate, in one female character, the angst and struggle of the many in our government and at CIA, who were dedicated to finding Osama bin Laden. Writers do this often. It's a great device, the distillation of character traits into one strong central character. It has made for some of our greatest literature and cinema. And then, there is the hallowed ground of history. American history. In Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg bio-pic of the legendary president that has garnered much Oscar buzz, it appears that playing looslely with the facts has brought some warranted, and necessary, criticism from historians.
I was seventeen when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. I remember it vividly, it still pains me deeply. The theorists, assassination buffs, and the Warren Commission(and Oliver Stone) have all had their way with the so-called truth in the fifty-plus years since. Sure, I'd like to know. Sure, I wish I could re-write history, my way, or maybe Oliver Stone's way. But I can't. If I'm to write a screenplay, in re-reading, researching, or creating anew I'm restricted by certain truths about the history of those events. I must be. I cannot fictionalize freely about certain real times and real places and real people involved. I must stick to such rigid guidlines set up by historians and researchers who have gathered much more knowledge than I have over the same time period.
Doris Kearns Goodwin did the same in her NYT bestseller, Team Of Rivals, about President Lincoln, the crisis years of his presidency and the passage of the 13th Amendment. She did the research, wrote the historical record, and the book became the libretto for the Spielberg film. The screenplay was written by Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Tony Kushner(Angels In America). The film is very good. I think it is an important film for every American that not only shows the tremendous power of events in American history, but the greatness and efficacy of outstanding filmmaking. Mr. Spielberg has offerd to provide a DVD of the film to every middle school and high school library in the country. I have to wonder then, why would both script creator and director, want to ignore a glaring historical mistake?
It has been pointed out, somewhat angrily, by Congressman, Joe Courtney of Connecticut, that two Connecticut House members in the film voted "Nay" against the Thirteenth Amendment for the abolition of slavery. In fact, the actual Connecticut representatives supported the 13th: Republican Augustus Brandegee and a Democrat from New Haven, James English. Both voted "Aye." In fact, the first two "Nay" votes were cast by Democratic congressmen from Illinois, Lincoln's home state. What gives? Why the change, the altercation to history? Does it make dramatic sense? I think not. Both Kushner and Spielberg knew the facts, they were appraised by historians. It's an easy fix, every filmmaker knows this. And this is more than just a Hollywood movie. If its going out to schools across the country, why should it state what is obviously wrong. Columbus did not discover America, he discovered it for Spain. We've deconstructed history quite a bit and sometimes it serves us well. Let's get it right, and the same must be asked of Hollywood, too, in matters of history.
Footnote: I saw Hyde Park on Hudson. Don't know about its accuracy, or historical truthfulness. It was simply a lousy film.