Should films that lay claim to truth be free to lie? The old question is raised again by two now on general release. Argo tells the story of the escape of American diplomats from Iran in 1979. Zero Dark Thirty tells of the more recent killing of Osama Bin Laden. Both are already controversial.
The first, Argo, has understandably enraged the British ambassador in Tehran at the time, Sir John Graham, by stating as a fact that he “turned away” the fugitive American diplomats. It left him “very distressed that the film-makers got it so wrong”. The British Embassy took in the fugitives and they moved to the Canadian Embassy only when the British one became exposed to attack. One of the Americans, Robert Anders, has fully corroborated Graham’s comments, saying the film “is absolutely untrue. The British made us very comfortable and were very helpful ... We are forever grateful.”
Meanwhile, Zero Dark Thirty depicts gruesome scenes of CIA waterboarding as contributing to the hunt for Bin Laden. Those involved claim this allegation is untrue and, worse, justifies “good cause” torture. The film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, says hers is “just a movie” not a documentary and pleads her first amendment right “to create works of art” and speak her conscience. She is apparently engaged in a campaign not for but against torture.
We are here back in the “factional” territory of Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father (1993) among many others. Stone was seeking to prove that Kennedy was shot by more than one gunman, which required him to inter-cut newsreels with fictional scenes he staged. Sheridan’s film about the trial of the Guildford Four sought to portray it as “one of the most significant miscarriages of justice in the western world this century”. Eager “unequivocally ... to influence the public”, he produced what the historian, the late Robert Kee, called “a farrago of rubbish”, sorely weakening his case. Makers of films captioned as “true stories” claim either that fabrications do not matter as they are “just making movies”, or that they are justified in a higher cause. Yet, they can hardly be both. Cinema in my view is the defining cultural form of the age. It deserves to be taken seriously and therefore to be criticised for shortcomings. If the most celebrated of “docudramas”, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, could go to lengths to authenticate its storyline, why should not any film claiming truth to history?
Fiction may be free and facts expensive, but film-makers are not short of researchers. Commentators may be accused of choosing facts to prove their opinions — plague the thought — but that is different from falsification. Nor do they excuse lies as higher truth. The licence to report carries responsibilities. Inaccuracy in print is vulnerable to litigation. Plagiarism and fabrication are serious journalistic crimes. A newspaper that accused Graham of anti-American cowardice will lead to fierce rebuttal and retraction.
Journalists are told they are making ‘the first rough draft of history’, with the implication that a proper historian will soon be along to take over. Both are now overwhelmed by a tidal wave of film-makers, claiming the same licence to the word ‘truth’, but without any of its disciplines. The French director, Jean-Luc Godard, declared that cinema was “truth 24 frames a second”. Bigelow, like Stone and Sheridan, feels justified in using inaccuracy to advance a cause. If they got it wrong, it was art. I wish I had that get-out. Keats has a lot to answer for in nonsensically identifying truth with beauty.
I believe films matter. The American critic Michael Medved once protested at Hollywood’s relentless message, “that violence offers an effective solution for all human problems”. He was howled down by the industry. It continued to argue that its glorification of violence and, more recently, Islamophobia, was somehow un-influential. The American show Criminal Minds features a serial killer of the week, excused by CBS’s Nina Tassler as not inappropriate, “an adult show”. Or, as Martin Scorsese put it back in the peaceable 1990s, “maybe we need the catharsis of bloodletting and decapitation” from time to time.
It insults reason to maintain that some filmed images are harmless fantasy while others can drive viewers to action. We ban incitement to violence and race hatred in other forms of performance as likely to influence behaviour. We likewise ban tobacco advertising. We know visual images influence how people see the world. As Woody Allen grimly reflected: “If I have made one more person feel miserable, I’ll feel I’ve done my job.”
Films appeal to inner fears and chauvinist prejudices. That is why Ben Affleck had a mild dig at the British in Argo, and Mel Gibson in Braveheart and The Patriot. It is why American movies imply America won the war and British ones that Britain did. It is why Hollywood has stopped killing orientals and started killing Arabs. Films must now sell in China.
When communists rewrote history and wiped leaders from old photographs we ridiculed them. Yet we do the same. Claiming the lie as art leaves the door open for Chinese and other censors to pick and choose their own comforting “truths”. Nothing should be banned, but the film censors should make themselves useful and revise their categories. If “true story” appears in a film’s preamble and is clearly wrong, the film should carry certificate L, for lie. We would then know where we stood.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd