Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Films: Fact or Fiction?

AP photo/Bloomsbury
The Searchers:
The Making of an
American Legend"
by Glenn Frankel

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal
(Annapurna Pictures/Columbia Pictures)

      Two new entertainment stories on the news wire caught my eye: A review of a book about the John Ford Film The Searchers and the real incident upon which it was based, and a debate on whether films based on facts -- such as Lincoln, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty -- are obligated to adhere to the facts, or if they are permitted to change details for dramatic effect.
     I plan to see all three films, but I'm glad now to know that they have fudged some significant facts and/or inserted opinions and beliefs as facts.
     Are filmmakers allowed to change the facts? Of course. There are no laws against it, and none of the screenwriters or directors involved face prosecution. I don't think anyone, aside from a few wackos, would want to change that. The question remains: Should they do it?
      In the case of Argo, one of the details that's been questioned is some last-minute drama as the plane -- carrying six U.S. citizens, stuck in Iran during the hostage crisis -- takes off. Apparently the real flight took off with no such drama.
     I think that's melodramatic, but OK. It diminishes the accomplishment of the people rescuing the Americans to suggest they didn't get away as clean as they actually did, but not a big deal.
     My favorite spy TV show was the Cold War-era British drama The Sandbaggers, which featured an elite crew of British spies whose duties rarely involved shoot-outs with the Russkies. If their actions degenerated to such action every week, they would have been incompetent at their jobs. A lot of what they did would seem boring if you weren't aware of the jeopardy in which they might end up if something went wrong. (At least four of the six Sandbaggers died throughout the show's 20-episode run.)
     Lincoln is also under fire for increasing the drama of the vote for the 13th Amendment by changing two votes for it to two votes against it, thus besmirching a Northern state's good name (but not the names of the legislators; fictional names were used). I don't feel a good deal of outrage over that detail, but I question whether it was necessary. If the filmmakers didn't think it was deceitful or dishonest, why did they change the names? Bit of a tell.

  Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. (AP photo)

     Finally, Zero Dark Thirty has been under fire for some time over the detail of enhanced interrogation or torture being used to gain useful information against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. This has drawn fire from those who say such interrogation never took place, and from those who say it took place, but never yielded useful information. Heretofore director Kathryn Bigelow has defended this by saying the script was researched, people interviewed, sources vetted, and this was what they said happened.
    The newswire article however quotes a Wall Street Journal interview where screenwriter Mark Boal says something a little different: "I think it's my right, by the way, if I firmly believe that bin Laden was killed by aliens, to depict that. ... In this country, isn't that legit?"(my emphasis.)
     That suggests that maybe Boal firmly believes that enhanced interrogation took place and/or that it yielded positive results even if he had no testimony to that effect. If that's what happened, I think he went too far.
     What does The Searchers have to do with this topic? It offers a different answer to whether or not films based on real events can change facts for dramatic purposes: Yes, if you change the names and don't say it depicts actual events.
     Glen Frankel's  The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend examines the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, upon which the novel and the film The Searchers was based, as well as the making of the film. The corresponding character in the film is named Debbie Edwards. To my knowledge, the film wasn't sold as a true story.
     It's a little deceitful if you use the cachet of calling your film a true story to sell it to audiences, but then feel free to change facts to suit your whims or ideas of narrative needs. It's false pretenses. While no one should take anything as fact simply because it was said or portrayed in a film, the filmmakers are using that supposed reliability to attract audiences. A film about a fictional president of the United States -- Isaac Chevrolet, say -- waging a Civil War in part to free slaves might not be as attractive to audiences as one about Abe Lincoln.
     My worst-case example of this is A Beautiful Mind, based on the nonfiction book of the same name about John Forbes Nash Jr. It deviates so far from the facts of Nash's life that I feel it should have changed all the names (including the title) and not pretended to be a true story. As a fictional portrayal of a brilliant man with mental illness, it has its moments. As a biopic -- which any reasonable person, seeing the film has the same title as a nonfiction book about the subject and is allegedly based upon the book, would conclude the film is -- it is farcical and less accurate than a Hollywood biopic of the 1940s. (That the book's author, Sylvia Nasar, has a kinder view of it may be because of the the check she received for the rights.)
     The Searchers took a real-life event, fictionalized it, changed the facts and the characters and came up with a different result. That's OK because it's fiction. You can change reality to suit your beliefs, your needs, your wants.
     For example, if someone makes a film about the Bush-Gore election, but has Gore win the electoral vote recount so it jibes with the popular vote, that would be unacceptable. If someone makes a film about a presidential election, featuring characters who closely resemble Bush and Gore but have different names, and has the Gore surrogate win the recount, then that's fiction and it is OK.
     Lincoln, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty haven't taken such great liberties with the truth as that, and I still intend to see them. If they had asked me, however, I'd have suggested sticking as close to the truth as possible.


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