New Movies, by Daniel Mendelsohn

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In 492 b.c., an Athenian tragedian named Phrynichus made the disastrous decision to premiere a play about recent political events — as far as we know, the first drama in Western history to be based on a true story. As with other, more recent works of the genre — such as Selma, Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated movie about the 1965 voting-rights marches in Alabama — the title of Phrynichus’ play had only to refer to the name of a certain city to evoke a strong reaction in audiences. It was called The Capture of Miletus.

Miletus was an opulent city on the coast of Asia Minor — which, despite its location, was culturally Greek, had a large Greek population, and maintained close ties to Athens. A couple of years before Phrynichus first staged his play, the city had been brutally sacked by the Persians: one of the acts of aggression that led to the conflict known as the Persian Wars, which were memorialized by Herodotus in his Histories. But if Phrynichus was hoping that The Capture of Miletus would be a surefire tearjerker, he got more than he bargained for. Herodotus reports that after the first performance, the Athenians were so upset by the depiction of the Milesians’ suffering that they fined Phrynichus a thousand drachmas and forbade any future performances of the play. It’s no wonder that of the thirty-two extant Greek tragedies, thirty-one take their plots from myth rather than history.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

The difference between myth and history — the problem of “historical accuracy” in popular entertainment and the controversies that arise when historical facts are manipulated for aesthetic and emotional purposes — was certainly a point of contention among critics of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year, with most of the controversy focused on DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. biopic. Even before Selma was released, historians and former aides of Lyndon B. Johnson loudly complained that the movie had inaccurately made LBJ into a dramatically convenient villain: he is depicted as being opposed to King’s march from Selma to Montgomery and only grudgingly supportive of the Voting Rights Act, despite evidence to the contrary. Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former Johnson domestic adviser, even claimed that the Selma march was LBJ’s idea, not King’s. As he put it in an angry Washington Post op-ed, “The makers of the new movie Selma apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama.”

What you make of Califano’s remark depends on how you interpret the phrase “work as drama.” There’s no doubt that the “true story” of the Selma march was “dramatic” — which is to say, emotional, significant, important. But was it “dramatic” in the way we use the word when talking about what we want from good plays or movies, which often have to reframe large-scale historical events as conflicts between specific characters in order to make those events meaningful for audiences? You don’t have to be a critic to understand the need for such streamlining: apropos of DuVernay’s film, the civil rights activist Julian Bond, who worked with King, said that “the movie people wanted Dr. King to have an antagonist. Why not have it be LBJ?”

One obvious response to that question — obvious, at least, to historians — is “Because it isn’t true.” What’s significant is that the historians feel they need to speak up at all. The great concern underlying the historical-accuracy debate is that movies have a remarkable power to shape audiences’ understandings of past and current events.

The complaints against Selma, and the anxieties they betray about the vexed relationship between entertainment and education, have surfaced in one form or another throughout the history of film. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) was condemned for presenting the deprivations of a white family during Reconstruction as a dramatic justification for the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. (The film’s alternate title was The Clansman.) The outcry was so great that a year later Griffith made cinematic amends with Intolerance, his masterpiece, an epic narrative embracing no fewer than four sagas whose common theme is the dangers of the titular sin. More recently, Kate Masur, a Northwestern University history professor, claimed that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) falsified the historical record by eliding the important role played by Civil War–era African Americans in their own emancipation. She argued that two leaders of Washington, D.C.’s black community of the time, White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade, were reduced to passive caricatures in Spielberg’s film. Slade in particular, she wrote, became no more than “an avuncular butler, a black servant out of central casting.” Her complaint eerily recalled objections that had been made two decades earlier against the same director’s Schindler’s List (1993), in which, as the Brown University Holocaust historian Omer Bartov put it, Spielberg’s representation of his Jewish characters as “physically small, emotionally confused, frantic, almost featureless” evoked the stereotypes that Nazis themselves had promulgated. And yet you could argue that the exaggerated contrast between saviors and saved in both films heightened the drama.

The criticisms, in matters both great and trivial, indeed often reveal as much about the politics, tastes, and allegiances of the critics as they do about the films. The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum’s biopic about Alan Turing, the World War II–era British code-breaker, which was another Best Picture nominee this year, has been criticized for many inaccuracies, from its inexact depiction of Turing’s work environment to what some critics felt was an insufficient number of gay sex scenes. Ten years ago, there was a tempest in a Limoges teapot concerning Sofia Coppola’s decision to put a pair of powder-blue high-tops in Marie Antoinette’s closet. Plus ça change: In the first movie review I ever wrote, in 1991, about Oliver Stone’s JFK, I wondered why that labyrinthine, paranoid investigation into the 1963 assassination had to lead, finally, to a bunch of — well, queens: a gaggle of New Orleans gay guys who liked to prance around in powdered wigs.

Whatever their politics, most people who object to the ways in which drama gleefully dispenses with historical accuracy often invoke lofty values: journalistic integrity, the importance of the truth in the abstract. While there’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of their objections, the controversy — or the fact that the controversy has seemed to metastasize in recent years, not only on the screen but on the page as well, in a proliferation of phony memoirs — may have less to do with ethics, aesthetics, or historiography than with sociology and technology. After all, it’s now breathtakingly easy to publish our private versions of the truth, versions that in an earlier age would likely not have seen the light of day. Much public discourse over the past two decades has devolved into ongoing rounds of opinionating, often untethered from any concern for accuracy, and carried out on bespoke news programs, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter timelines.

Of particular concern, because of the natural and even subconscious ease with which we absorb visual information, is that it is easier than ever to falsify the appearance of things. Filmmakers in particular have been alert to the possibilities inherent in new technologies of visual reproduction, which have destabilized once-rigid boundaries between fictional and documentary techniques. JFK was a powerful example of this. Stone threaded what seemed to be authentic footage — jagged amateurish shots in grainy black and white, accompanied by muffled sound — into otherwise lush, if not Day-Glo, narrative sequences. (Even back then, poor LBJ was getting the short end of the historical stick: Stone’s film hints that JFK’s vice president was in on the assassination.)

But the up-to-the-minute use of a journalistic visual style, with its implicit and sometimes explicit claims to truth, can backfire as surely as Phrynichus’ approach did twenty-five centuries ago. In an open letter to Kathryn Bigelow — whose film Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, has been lauded for its “part documentary” quality — Naomi Wolf likened the director to the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, whose visually stunning documentaries about Hitler’s regime had made her an “apologist for evil.” This is just the most explosive recent example of how impatient the intellectual and journalistic establishment can get with the often mushy claims made by Hollywood films that they “raise questions” about history. Ava DuVernay defended herself against complaints with, among other things, a number of tweets, including: “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself. #Selma.” Historians might be tempted to retort that the study of the past shouldn’t be a do-it-yourself affair — that the only tools that allow us to interrogate the past meaningfully are sober expertise and intellectual scrupulousness.

Just how much “story” can we responsibly mine from “history”? The conundrum is even more elegantly visible in the Romance languages, which make no distinction between the words for “history” and “story”: histoire in French and storia in Italian can mean both. Blame Herodotus: the so-called Father of History coined the word as we know it. For him, historia was a quasi-scientific investigation (the root of the Greek word means “to inquire”). But in part because Herodotus’ inquiries into the causes and events of the Persian Wars were so entertaining — epic, slightly rambling, sometimes gossipy, never dull — the word came, in time, to mean something much more like our “narrative.”

Herodotus himself was hardly distinguished for historical accuracy. (One strongly suspects, for instance, that the pyramids were not built from the top down.) But no one would dispute his greatness as a historian either. What, in the end, do we want to take away from history? The big picture — what the events of the human past “mean” — or the tiny details, getting things “right”?

Hard to say. To my mind, some of the most suggestive, wrenching, and profound cinematic investigations of twentieth-century history are the films of the Russian director Alexander Sokurov — his masterpiece is Russian Ark (2002) — which no one would claim as realistic, let alone accurate. The Sun, his 2005 film about Emperor Hirohito, is part of a trilogy about the ideological failures of that century (the others are Moloch, his sometimes slapstick 1999 fantasy about Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, and Taurus, his 2001 exploration of Lenin’s consciousness). In it, the director has the Japanese emperor, who was a serious student of marine biology and published several books on the topic, make odd, fishlike expressions: an unsettling and ultimately powerful reminder of how, like certain other autocrats — Louis XVI with his passion for locksmithing, or the Hellenistic Greek king Antiochus IX, who, we’re told, was a talented puppeteer — this trivial man was placed by chance at the center of great historical events.

As a contrast to Sokurov’s achievements, you could cite Oliver Stone’s work once more: not JFK, but his epic Alexander (2004), about the great Macedonian conqueror who successfully invaded and subjugated Persia in the fourth century b.c. — a final retribution, as he and other Greeks saw it, for the centuries-long enmity between the two civilizations that began with the capture of Miletus. At the time of the movie’s release, much was made of its “accuracy.” In this film, we were told, the ancient past had been meticulously re-created: visually (the distinctive curls of the Persian emperor’s beard were slavishly reproduced), historically (the details of Alexander’s climactic engagement with the enemy, down to the size and color of the dust cloud that the thundering hordes were said to have raised, were faithfully replicated), and, as it were, emotionally. Stone retained a retired Marine captain to advise him on how to make the battle scenes authentic; in Becoming Alexander, a Discovery Channel documentary about the making of Stone’s film, you learn that Colin Farrell, who portrayed Alexander, attended a kind of boot camp with the extras who played his soldiers in order to create a bona fide emotional bond with them.

The problem is that the film that resulted from this obsessive desire for historical accuracy is a dud: a baggy, incoherent, bloviating mess in which any sense of the thrilling and impressive arc of Alexander’s career — of the “story” — sinks beneath the weight of period detail. In the end, the film tells you a lot more about the grandiose ambitions of Oliver Stone than about those of Alexander the Great. The day I saw Alexander, there were twelve people in the audience; by the time it was over, there were eight. Not for the first time in the history of mass entertainment, the audience knew best — if not about history, then certainly about story. What can accuracy mean if no one’s watching?

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