Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

How Accurate Do Historical Films Need to Be?

Journalist Christian Caryl recently wrote a commentary in the New York Review about the movie, The Imitation Game, highlighting many of the film’s historical inaccuracies that he feels aren't trivial.  On the contrary, he contends that the film cooks up a portrayal of Alan Turing—the gay, wartime, British mathmetician who is the film’s subject—that is so far off-base, it crosses the line of artistic license and leaps into a world of artistic negligence.  He writes that the film “not only fatally miscasts Turing as a character—it also completely destroys any coherent telling of what he and his colleagues were trying to do.”  The film, he concludes, sends an “extremely distorted picture of history.”

I was intrigued to hear Caryl articulately make his point last week on NPR’s radio show, "Worldview,” along with show host Jerome McDonnell and film contributor Milos Stehlik.  At the crux of the debate was this: how accurate should historical films be, is there a line that should not be crossed, and does it really matter?

Whatever integrity Caryl built up for the first half of the show—during which he skillfully pointed out the problems with The Immitation Game—was quickly obliterated when asked about Selma, a film that's suffering similar scrutiny for its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King.  Caryl admits that the latter film takes “a lot of liberties with the history, some of which I found a little tough to swallow” and claims that people’s view of Martin Luther King with be “strongly shaped” by the movie.  Oddly, Caryl still recommends Selma.  Why?  “I thought it was just a damn good story.”

So, presumably, if the makers of The Immitation Game had simply made a better movie, then the historical errors could be overlooked?

During the show, host McDonnell didn't initially let Caryl’s inconsistencies off the hook, and asked him why he was okay with Selma.  Again Caryl answered, “You know, it’s a crackin’ good story…The Imitation Game I think is a bad story. A stupid story.”

Hmmm.  I personally don’t care what Caryl thinks is a good story vs. a bad story, and I’m thankful he’s not in a position of determining which films get made and which do not.  Whatever valid points he made in his essay were completely erased by his own inane argument on the radio.

But more distrubing to me is the following remark Caryl made: “A lot of people nowadays get their history from movies.  It’s that simple."

Excactly where he collected the data to formulate such a far-reaching claim is unknown, but it must be a sad, sad world Caryl lives in when most people with whom he interacts are clueless nincompoops.  Who are these people Caryl speaks of whose intellects are so flimsy that a two hour film can completely mold their viewpoints?  It’s true that I lean left politically and generally hate the right-wing attack on liberalism as “elitist,” but you know what?  In this case they would be correct to cry foul.  How much more elitist can one be to presume that most filmgoers (but not Caryl himself, of course) will have their sense of world history shaped by a movie?

Caryl's inconsistency and unsubstantiated claim notwithstanding, the question still lingers:  Does any of this matter?  Do films need to follow a guideline and be careful to portray history accurately? 

I'll answer the question with a series of additional questions: Is Amadeus an accurate portrayal of Mozart and Salieri?  Did Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins depict Nixon accurately in the film Nixon?  How about the character of Thatcher in The Iron Lady?  Or J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland?  Oscar Schindler in Schlinder's List?  How about Hitler in Downfall?  Or Muhammad Ali in Ali?  The list goes on and on and on of films that were not meant to be the final say in a person’s life, but rather an entertaining interpretation. 

In other words, artistic. 

Huh.  Go figure.

Caryl overlooks a few other important points:

1)     All art is slanted, be it film, photographs, paintings, and yes, even documentaries (I doubt even Caryl would claim that Michael Moore’s films are objective).   And funnily enough, a film like Zero Dark Thirty which some blasted for supporting the use of torture, I found to be a film steadfastly against torture.   What?  A piece of art can conjure up multiple viewpoints?  Nah!

2)     People are not as dumb as Caryl presumably believes.  I have seen Nixon the movie.  It does not shape my viewpoint of Nixon the man in any way, shape or form.  I have not yet seen Selma, but I gotta believe it won’t shape my view of MLK more than the words and images of the Man Himself.  This brings me to my last and most important point...

3)     Historical films provide a gateway for learning more about the subject.  I knew nothing about Turing before seeing The Imitation Game (which I quite liked, by the way).  I still know little about him, but I at least have the salient facts down: Turing was a brilliant, gay man who—along with many others—helped crack the code to the Nazi’s Enigma Machine and was later arrested for having an affair with another man.  Now, that isn’t much to go on.  But you know what?  Because of the film, I may now choose to investigate further so that in time I’ll have a more complete picture of Alan Turing, The Man, instead of Alan Turing, The Character

In that sense, we owe a great debt to The Imitation Game.

Let's allow filmmakers do what they do best: entertainment us.

Copyright, 2015, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved