Movies that make (up) history

Hollywood's myth-making machine never lets facts get in the way of a good story

Photo illustration by Taylor Shute; Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

It’s enough to make you wonder if Oscar is more history buff than film buff. Of the last decade’s 20 Best Actor and Actress winners, all but five starred in period films, and the majority played historical figures. They constitute a virtual Madame Tussauds, an Academy house of wax that includes Ray Charles, Harvey Milk, June Carter, Truman Capote, Queen Elizabeth II, King George VI, Idi Amin, Edith Piaf and Margaret Thatcher—and, in the chamber of horrors, serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

This year, Oscar’s love for “true” stories about momentous events remains undiminished. Leading the charge with a dozen nominations is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis appearing to have a bony-knuckled lock on Best Actor for his shrewd portrayal of America’s most iconic president. Lincoln’s rivals includes Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, both thrillers based on real-life tales of CIA crusaders fighting Islamic terror. And competing with Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain for Best Actress is a pair of contenders who fight historic forces even more cataclysmic than al-Qaeda: Naomi Watts, as a tenacious mother swept away by the 2004 tsunami in The Impossible, and Quvenzhané Wallis as a fictional kid braving the Louisiana floodwaters of hurricane Katrina in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

But the Academy seems more in love with the idea of history than the real thing—and with movies that turn fact into fable. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The problem is the makers of Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo keep insisting their films are faithful accounts, despite glaring evidence to the contrary. The result is one of the most politically charged Oscar campaigns in recent memory.

One of the world’s leading Lincoln scholars, Columbia University professor Eric Foner, calls Spielberg’s movie “an inside-the-Beltway story” confined to the White House and the U.S. Congress. “It’s claustrophobic,” he says. “It’s the white man freeing the slaves. Slavery was collapsing in the South, and you get no sense of that. Black people have no role.” Foner says the film is also riddled with inaccuracies, which wouldn’t bother him but for the claims of the filmmaker. “Spielberg has raised the bar considerably by saying how they read all this history. You don’t become a historian by reading two works of history, just like you don’t become a filmmaker by putting two videos online.”

Though Lincoln’s story is safely enshrined in the distant past, Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes a 10-year manhunt that climaxed just 20 months ago with the killing of Osama bin Laden. And its torture scenes have ignited serious controversy as U.S. senators blasted the film from both sides of the aisle. Last month Democrat Dianne Feinstein (who chairs the Senate intelligence committee) and Republican John McCain signed a letter that called the film “grossly inaccurate and misleading.” That jolted the movie’s Oscar campaign, and though Zero Dark Thirty would receive five nominations, the Washington backlash, and a chorus of liberal censure, likely caused Kathryn Bigelow to be snubbed for Best Director. Now there’s a backlash against the backlash, as filmmakers like Michael Moore—who has never let facts stand in the way of a good story—leap to defend Bigelow’s artistic licence.

Among Zero Dark Thirty’s critics is Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and a fellow of the Open Society Foundations, a liberal granting agency. He says the movie is “irresponsible” to suggest that “torture was necessary and directly effective in producing the intelligence that resulted in the killing of bin Laden.” But he adds, “none of that would be an issue if the filmmakers hadn’t said it was based on first-hand accounts and actual events.”

No one should be shocked when Hollywood melts down history to forge a shiny alloy of myth and entertainment. That’s the whole point of making a movie in the first place. It’s a question of degree and there are code words for artistic licence. Typically, a movie is “based on a true story,” which means plenty of stuff has been made up. “Inspired by a true story” means it’s largely fiction. But even the most rigorous accounts invent dialogue, conflate events and use composite characters.

What complicates Zero Dark Thirty is that it comes so soon after bin Laden’s death that the actual facts are still murky. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,000-word report on the CIA’s interrogation program remains secret. “So you’ve got this film being dropped into an information vacuum,” says Jaffer, “and that’s a dangerous thing.” Yet he concedes that the movie’s graphic, realistic portrayal of torture “revives a useful and necessary debate.”

Argo is far less inflammatory, despite the fracas that erupted after the movie’s Toronto festival premiere, when Ken Taylor, former Canadian ambassador to Iran, lambasted Ben Affleck’s comedy-thriller in a Maclean’s interview. Branding the movie “fiction,” he said the filmmakers “stole a good story” and gave CIA spy Tony Mendez the credit for Canada’s role in engineering the escape of six U.S. diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

Affleck immediately swung into damage control. He flew Taylor to Hollywood, invited him to rewrite the movie’s insulting postscript, made him the guest of honour at a Washington premiere, and hailed him as a hero. Affleck was taking no chances: a media attack on a film’s veracity can derail an Oscar campaign, as Canadian director Norman Jewison learned when slurs on the accuracy of The Hurricane (1999) ruined Denzel Washington’s shot at an Oscar for portraying wrongly convicted boxer Rubin Carter.

But Canadians are the only ones who got worked up about Argo. And after going to all the trouble to pacify Taylor, while courting journalists and Academy members at a Hollywood luncheon, Affleck later insisted his movie is “extremely accurate” and “relevant”—a clear attempt to endow a lightweight caper movie with a touch of Lincoln gravitas. At the same event, Victor Garber, the Canadian actor who plays Taylor, took a swipe at him: “I’m sure he would have preferred if the movie had been The Ken Taylor Story.”

Speaking by phone from Jamaica this week, Taylor maintains Argo “has nothing to do with reality” and called Garber’s comment “malicious.” He said, “I’ve got a far sharper tongue than he has but I don’t intend to play that game. I’ve tried to be fairly diplomatic. Maybe I’ve got more practice than he has at situations that are essentially theatrical.” Affleck’s campaign paid off at Sunday’s Golden Globes, where Argo won Best Drama and Best Director. Neither Taylor nor Canada rated a mention, though a producer did thank “our [American] diplomats.”

Of course, a wholly accurate movie is likely one that nobody would watch. Argo’s adrenalin-fired climax depends entirely on a race against the clock at the airport, which the filmmakers admit never happened. Even Lincoln’s dry drama hinges on a bogus race against time as Abe pushes the Thirteenth Amendment through a lame-duck Congress. Historians note that, had he failed, he could have passed it later in a new Congress dominated by Republicans.

The myths propagated by Hollywood movies may be more distorting than their factual inaccuracies—whether it’s Lincoln’s presidential saviour liquidating slavery in a congressional bubble, or the demonization of the Islamic peril in Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. “A French historian once wrote that ‘historians are the enemy of the nation,’ ” says Foner, “by which he meant all nations have foundational myths, and historians destroy those myths. Historians are also the enemy of Hollywood.”

Sometimes there’s a stronger sense of history in fiction than in true stories. Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (Rebelle), Canada’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, dramatizes the plight of African child soldiers with a fictional scenario that ranges from atrocities to drug-induced hallucinations. But between its location shoot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the haunting performance of Rachel Mwanza, a girl he discovered in the street, the film is grounded in a raw, indisputable veracity.

Foner, meanwhile, admits he found some historical merit in the gonzo antics of Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s slave-era spaghetti western. “Amid all the absurd fantasy, there are some real insights into slavery and how it operated.” He even confesses to liking Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: “At least it got into the society, which Lincoln does not do.” Foner does, however, praise Day-Lewis’s “very plausible” portrayal of the president. When the Academy Awards are handed out on Feb. 24, that plausible Brit will likely make history as the first man to win a third Best Actor prize. But it will be a thoroughly American victory. For all their Olympic bombast, the Oscars are an essentially American rite, and Americans don’t get more iconic than Lincoln—even if Abe is not around to accept.