Film History Is Not Your Bitch, History

As should be pretty apparent given the number of times I ruminate on things like Spartacus and Game of Thrones, I love historical fiction.  But beyond its own charms, historical fiction has the virtue of being a gateway drug for more rigorous historical study and scholarship. I’d bet ten livres de tournai many a medievalist found their way into that epoch through Arthurian lit and Tolkien. The awful (it’s awful, y’all) TNT mini-series Gettysburg was how I first got interested in the Civil War. Historical fiction presents the opportunity, particularly in visual media, to get a sense of the past as the present (because the story unfolds in time, as you watch it). Through an emotional alignment to characters, it allows we moderns to appreciate what makes history so compelling: grasping the actuality, the desires and thoughts and wits and passions, of those who were, and were like us, who will be gone as utterly as they all too soon.

lincoln film theory

With that rather florid beginning, you can gather that I have thoughts on Maureen Dowd’s snippy article decrying a lack of accuracy in Hollywood films. Let’s begin her premise on which she takes down Argo and Lincoln:

 “…my pet peeve about filmmakers [is when they] make up facts in stories about real people to add “drama,” rather than just writing the real facts better.”

Inherent in this statement is a prejudices of taste: that ‘real facts’ are always better than anything an author can make up in stories about real people. This is certainly a valid opinion. But it’s one that exists in a vacuum apart from the entire history and trajectory of Hollywood storytelling. Starting from around 1912, what’s become known as the Classical Hollywood Narrative Style has ruled filmmaking. Every film, whether reacting against it or conforming to it, has to make creative choices based on the fact that the dominant trend in ‘feature’ filmmaking is to tell a story of a protagonist, grounded by psychological motivation, and his/her pursuit of defined goals. Ben Affleck must get those hostages out of Iran; Lincoln must pass 13th amendment, etc.

Drama arises from the complications and developments which delay and redefine these goals – the Chief of Staff hasn’t approved the tickets, quick find out where his kids go to school – and the interplay between pathos and action – oh no! the tickets have not been approved, it would be terrible if those poor hostages got captured, quick, Bryan Cranston, you must get them cleared! – allows us as viewers to feel (not think), to reach a catharsis where we recognize good and reject evil. I’m not saying this is the only way to do fiction, but this is how Hollywood does it, and y’all, it works.

film studies lincoln

While eviscerating the voting scene, Ms. Dowd cites the creative reasons Spielberg left in an inaccurate voting structure, by state rather than by name: rhythm, and ease of tracking the narrative. Quotations are put around these like they’re inferior concerns, as well they might be to a historian. But for we civilian viewers, it’s damned important to be completely enveloped in the tension of the vote – unthinkingly, viscerally hooked – not only because the climax of Lincoln is a series of white dudes speaking briefly, but because we already know the outcome. If you couldn’t track the scene because of all the Gileses and Roscoes and Addisons we’ve never met before thrown willy-nilly into the roll call, there’d be no tension, you wouldn’t care, and the scene wouldn’t work. The film chooses a narrative imperative over historical accuracy, shocking absolutely no one.   

Ms Dowd raises the point that incorporating the real facts could sustain tension. True. But unless they conform to the rigid focus and structure of Hollywood narrative style, unless they are a part of the protagonist-centric narrative established and carried into the climax, they are unnecessary to the narrative and encumbering distractions. Film is the art of omission. In order to fully appreciate the sacrifice of those Connecticut representatives, Lincoln would’ve had to established them earlier on, a shot of cable TV actor kissing his ailing wife before riding to Washington, etc. Michael Stuhlberg, Walter Goggins, and David Warshofsky all arguably stand in for the conflicts of various congressmen and the risks they took in  their voting choices, just as Zero Dark Thirty‘s Maya and Argo’s Jack are composites of many agents working the same cases.

cinematography lincoln

These are the constraints of Hollywood narrative. These are the terms. Ms. Dowd’s complaints are completely valid, but ask for a kind of motion picture the Hollywood feature film is not interested, intended, or built to be.  Ideally, Hollywood films offer us a glimpse of emotional truth: the grueling thanklessness and internal trials of Intelligence service: “Argo fuck yourself,” or the glorious, momentous historical achievement of passing the 13th Amendment, even if it totally would have passed once the new Republican-controlled congress came into session.

That said, there is something to her point about sending Lincoln forth into high schools classrooms across the nation without putting a Fiction warning label on it. It is equally idealistic for me to suggest everyone is capable of simmering down and taking film on its own terms, as a piece of art (no one takes issue with all stupid mistakes Gerome gets wrong about Roman life; thumbs down did not mean what you think it means, moderns) and not as a historical document. Film profoundly influences our perception of history. There’s a whole lens of studying history through its reception.


But the idea that Kushner and Spielberg’s creative liberties have ‘defamed’ Connecticut is, to this Louisiana native, ridiculous. Y’all are really worried about being seen as pro-slavery? I guarantee you my middle school classmates, who are so Southern one poor confused little belle earnestly asked our civics teacher, “Who actually won the civil war?” wouldn’t even absorb the names/states of the placeholder congressmen who voted ‘nay,’ but would track, as the film wants them to, the overall momentum of the vote and feel the catharsis of its hard-fought success.

Be upset about historical inaccuracy if that’s your deal.  But also, please, if you know better, – which you should, Maureen Dowd – temper those objections by putting them into the context of the filmmakers’ intentions and choices. As she rightly points out, our reactions to stories are stories in themselves.

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2 Responses to Film History Is Not Your Bitch, History

  1. DillWonald says:

    While I agree perfect historical accuracy should not be the goal over good storytelling, how do you feel about cases where Hollywoodifying events might break the suspension of disbelief? Argo’s third act is a good example. You talk about how some details of the escape were altered in order to create tension that would then produce catharsis. To me it was so apparent that Hollywood had played with the ending that it called attention to itself as a “movie.” I don’t think such changes were disrespectful to the real-life event but they did mute the impressiveness of the real escape by forcing it to fit a more typical Hollywood mold.

  2. Breaking the suspension of disbelief IS indeed a cardinal sin (unless it’s not), regardless of your sources material, and I think that both films do it, but not in the places cited by the article. Dowd focuses on rather cheap, nitpicky moments and that’s why I got all ranty. Argo indeed snapped during its third act – for me, it was the point at which the van out to the plane won’t start, a clear bit of Hollywood manufacturing and it doesn’t work in the moment.

    You’re absolutely right to point out, too, that when the fiction doesn’t come off, it also diminishes the historical realities. Our opinions of the real life escape are in a large way formed by how invested we get in its Hollywood representation. But good historical fiction is not simply a case of writing facts “better.” It’s a case of writing the affectively: melding the facts and a clear emotional throughline to fit the narrative mold.

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