Thursday, November 14, 2013
A note on historical accuracy
Historical accuracy in the movies doesn't really matter, except when it does. Then it definitely matters. Which is to say that it matters to a fault. There are a lot of indicators that come into play and, in the end, the question is never "was the movie accurate," the question is "did the movie work?" That's the only question that matters and it matters for every movie, not just ones that are based on a true story.
Writers and filmmakers are certainly allowed to take creative licenses in order to tell their story in a dramatic/entertaining fashion. Sometimes there's just not enough time to fit in every mundane detail. With a lot of films, there are events that just don't fit into the particular arc of the story. If the story is being told specifically through the POV of the protagonist, then some of the facts are most certain to be skewed. Films, by rule, do NOT have to be objective. As a matter of fact, the reason why it's dramatic in the first place is because of its subjectivity. You want the facts, watch a documentary. People should not be exiting a film, that's based on a true story, and trying to catch the film on any factual errors. It's a MOVIE! There are bound to be some factual errors because it's not meant to be an objective experience. Some films are able to be factually accurate, and that's great for them, but there's no law that says they have to be. The only thing that matters, once again, is whether or not the movie works. That's it.
Now, there are some exceptions to what I just said here. A great film is an experience that should resonate with you either emotionally, intellectually, or both. A great blockbuster film is great because it engages you in an emotional way, but in a more purely visceral manner. It may have great effects sequences or great action... when we have a positive experience with such a movie, it's because it has managed to engage us on some level. My problem with a lot of blockbuster films these days has nothing to do with the intellectual experience and everything to do with the lack of emotional experience. I don't go into a Marvel movie expecting everything to make sense, but I do expect it to be engaging on some level. The biggest way to get through to an audience is to skip all the pretense and go straight into what matters in the story. That's why "Pacific Rim" was such a positive experience for me. And on another, bigger level, that's how "Gravity" was for me. Two films doing decidedly different things, telling different stories, but both have the intention to engage with the audience. Both films cut through the excess fat and go straight to the meat of the story. By doing that, it lets the action sequences feel much smoother and have actual purpose.
Think of all the great action films of our time. Predator, Terminator/Terminator 2, Alien/Aliens, Robocop, Total Recall, Die Hard, Escape From New York, etc... Look back at all those films and what you'll find in common is not just awesome action sequences and fantastic thrills, you'll also find a through-line of simplicity. Now, Terminator 2 flirts with a more complex story, but generally speaking it keeps the main storyline in tact throughout. From the get-go, we are following the story, we know what's going on, we understand the characters, we're successfully immersed into this world and it allows us to really enjoy the film when it goes crazy with the explosions and the effects. What makes a bad action film is convoluted-ness. Elements thrown in that make no sense. Storylines that go nowhere. A lack of real emotional beats. All of that.
So wait, what does this have to do with historical accuracy? Well, a similar notion comes into play with movies that are based on a true story. The only thing that matters about films based on a true story is that it gets the basics correct. Like with "Argo," for example. Is it loaded with historical inaccuracies? Oh yes. But, is it about a guy posing as a movie producer in order to successfully get hostages out of Iran? Yes. The film is framed within the thriller genre so naturally things will be played up to make the film more exciting. For me, the movie works wonders when it comes to that. For me, I don't care if Canada didn't get mentioned that much, or if the plane ride wasn't actually as much of a nail-biter as it's portrayed in the film. It would be a much more boring film if told completely straight so the need to play up these moments make perfect sense. "Argo" works because it's a thriller, a great thriller. Thrillers, comedies, horror films... if the movie is based on a true story but is told in a specific genre, we have to expect some creative licensing will come into effect.
Another example would be anything Aaron Sorkin touches. Now, Sorkin is not a perfect writer, "The Newsroom" proves that. With the right director, Aaron Sorkin can sound like a genius. But without a great director constantly keeping Sorkin in check, things can get out of hand really fast. The reason why "The Social Network" worked so well for me, even if it may be historically inaccurate, is because of Fincher. The music of Trent Reznor alone should be a clear signal that the film is a dramatization, not a documentary. But Reznor's music and Fincher's filmmaking is so pitch perfect in the movie, that it all completely works. Sorkin's dialogue sounds great because Fincher was able to find the right tone and the right mood. That's because Fincher is the master of tone. Fincher is the modern master when it comes to thrillers, it's only natural that he's the master of tone. What I noted in my Social Network review, and why I docked it points, was because overall, these are a couple of rich, spoiled kids. Who cares about their problems, right? The beauty of Fincher, combined with Sorkin's script, is that it made me care for two hours. They convinced me to care. It wasn't until it was over when I realized how relatively inconsequential the actual story is, but that's because the film successfully took me under its spell. I've watched the film at least five or six times since and I still can't help but marvel at how well-made it is.
Now, here's the reason why I'm actually writing this piece. This year, we have a ton of films based on true stories. Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, and The Butler for example. The first three films were great in my opinion. It's "The Butler" that I have a beef with. The reason why I'm bringing it up again is because The Hollywood Reporter had a "Writers Roundtable" where they gathered some of the most notable screenwriters of the year and had a lively, engaging discussion with them. THR does this every year with actors, actresses, directors, and writers. They usually pick the ones that are likely to have the most awards attention, and it's a fun thing to watch. You get to learn a lot about the process of being an actor, writer, or director and you get to watch pretty notable people interact with each other. It's great.
I wanted to write this because in the roundtable discussion, the subject of historical accuracy came up. Danny Strong, the writer of The Butler, happened to be one of the people who was being interviewed at this roundtable. When it was his turn to answer, he defended the screenplay to "The Butler," claiming that he never intended the film to be completely accurate and that it was a clear fictionalization of a true story.
See, I understand the man's point. I think he's right with what he's saying, and maybe it was Lee Daniels' not-so-subtle directorial style that made me feel that this film was more heavy-handed and superficial than it actually was. My problem with the film has nothing to do with historical accuracy and everything to do with what the writer chose as a replacement to the facts. I didn't like the changes. Plus, the film still says that it's based on true events. Not everyone knows who the real-life butler's name is, but the film doesn't attempt to clarify that at the beginning. My main problem is that the real-life butler's story, alone, is really pretty amazing. That's why Mr. Strong wrote the film in the first place, right? Because this dude survived through all these administrations and saw a lot of things? While serving the president, he saw all the changes his country went through from segregation to integration. Eventually, he saw a black man become President of the United States. That's an incredible story. Why do you need to add so much fluff? Why do you need to include this fictional family with a son that dies in Vietnam and another son that's involved in literally every single goddamn civil rights movement that occurred in the late 50s and throughout the 60s. I initially believed it because I didn't know what was real or not. If this was all true, if this butler actually had these sons and these things actually happened, it would be amazing. But, it was all falsified and that left me feeling so used.
The film has such heavy emotional beats when it depicts all these events. It makes you really feel for Cecil Gaines when he finds out his son dies in Vietnam. At the end, I couldn't help but think "man, this guy really had a rough life... and he was the butler of all these presidents." The main damn aspect of the story is basically a sidestory to this fictionalized aspect of the guy's life. Perhaps it wasn't made to be as important in the script, but the movie definitely goes out of its way to explore everything BUT his time inside the white house. When we're actually in the white house, more time is given for us to point at all the celebrities who are playing the Presidents. There is such little time spent actually going into Gaines's time in the white house... and it's the main reason we're watching the movie in the first place! That's why I hated the movie so much, it was a bait and switch act. If "Argo" claimed to be based on a true story and there never was a fake movie called "Argo" and there never was a dude pretending to be a movie producer in order to help the hostages escape... the movie wouldn't work. The BASIC facts must be there. You're selling this as "based on a true story" because the basic events that happen are so unbelievable that being reminded it actually happened makes everything feel that much more real and... believable. What the filmmakers choose to do with the information is completely up to them, as long as they keep the basics in tact. That's all I ask for. With "The Butler," so much extra bullshit was added that the main point of the story was no longer as important. That's a problem. That's when historical accuracy matters. That's when I start to feel cheated.
"The Butler" is a basic drama that tells the life of Cecil Gaines in Forrest Gump-like fashion. Seriously, if Forrest Gump was actually based on a real person named John Johnson and literally everything about Forrest Gump's personal life AS WELL as his personality was falsified... wouldn't that be the worst movie ever? Wouldn't you feel as if you were used emotionally so that a couple of sick-minded filmmakers could make the most overly-sentimental, manipulative film of all-time? Forrest Gump wasn't based on a true story though. It's a fictional, ridiculous character who ironically finds himself at all these historical moments in our country's history. It's a clever film, in that way. "The Butler" is the first movie I described. It's the overly-sentimental, manipulative one.
So, there. Ok? I just wanted to clear that up because I viewed the roundtable discussion about a week ago and it's been eating away at me ever since. I, personally, don't try to put a movie on trial when it's factually inaccurate. I only have a problem when a film uses the "based on a true story" BS and completely ignores the main aspect of the movie that makes the whole "based on a true story" tag relevant in the first place. OR, when the movie is so over-the-top and overwrought about the more sensitive aspects of the story it's telling that it winds up being overly-sentimental tripe. "The Butler" is both those things. That's why your movie sucked, Danny Strong.
Anyway, the roundtables are really fun to watch. I'll post videos to all the roundtables that have come out thus far, below.... each video is 50+ minutes long. Good stuff.
Here's the full Actors roundtable with Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners), Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels' The Butler), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), Josh Brolin (Labor Day) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station).
The full Writers roundtable with George Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Monuments Men), Jonas Cuaron (Gravity), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight), Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said), John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and Danny Strong (The Butler)
And, today, the Directors roundtable just came out, I haven't even watched it yet! This one features Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) and Lee Daniels (The Butler)