Chalk it up to the growing epidemic of cultural solipsism, but at some point in the past two decades, fact became sexier than fiction. Works conjured from the imagination have been downgraded from the vaunted status they once held as the acme achievement in creative invention, while those derived from some byproduct of real life have become pop culture’s prized ponies, dominating bestseller lists, TV ratings charts, box office charts, and, most notably, this year’s Best Picture race.
Of course, now that entertainment consumers have become so hooked on the allure of a "true story," they feel doubly betrayed when it turns out that the storytelling doesn’t perfectly align with the historic record. As we close in on the final days of a hard-fought Oscar competition, fact checkers have been working overtime to point out the inaccuracies and gaffes in three of the year’s most acclaimed fact-based films: “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Argo.” In each case, the controversy drummed up over the past few weeks has been the result of a fair amount of historic dissection requiring a microscope and tweezers to isolate a gotcha moment where the filmmakers may have taken a dramatic liberty or two.
Democratic congressman Joe Courtney has accused Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” of falsely portraying his state’s congressional caucus as voting against the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. The NY Times’ Maureen Dowd even went so far as to call for Spielberg to re-edit the film to set the record straight. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has defended his decision to ratchet up the suspense in the voting chamber by having a few “nay” votes early on in the scene, arguing that he manipulated “a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth.” Dowd also calls out the filmmakers of “Argo,” which dramatizes an outlandish attempt to free the captives in the Iranian Hostage Crisis of the 1970s, for fabricating the film’s climactic chase scene while remaining true to the broader beats of the true story.
The debate over the fact vs fiction elements in “Zero Dark Thirty,” which chronicles the plot to capture Osama Bin Laden, has been ongoing and all over the map since the film’s release in late December. First, there was talk of an investigation into whether screenwriter Mark Boal illegally obtained classified documents from the Obama administration to reveal state secrets about torture practices in the War on Terrorism. Then the dust-up took a different shape with complaints that the filmmakers oversimplified the group effort to track down Bin Laden by attributing much credit to one female CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain.
This isn’t the first time a brushfire has broken out over accusations of tampering with the truth in the service of cinema on the eve of the Academy Awards. In 1998, Miramax studio chief Harvey Weinstein cast doubt over the accuracy of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” in order to secure a Best Picture trophy for “Shakespeare in Love.” And in 2001, “A Beautiful Mind,” based on the life of game theorist John Nash, was tarnished in the final days of its campaign when it came under fire for glossing over the Nobel Laureate’s antisemitism. What’s most baffling is that these badmouthing campaigns actually seemed to sway Academy voters -- who are supposed to be assessing the merits of fictional narratives. Yes, they’re based on true stories, but the primary goal of feature filmmaking is to transport and entertain.
Had they intended to represent the story of record, they would have made a documentary, which brings us to the most fascinating and underreported story of this campaign season: “Searching for Sugar Man.” Malik Bendjelloul’s riveting film is about the disappearance of Sixto Rodriguez, an unsung hero of the 1970s singer-songwriter scene whose career failed to find traction in the U.S. and seemed to vanish into thin air until a South African revival of his music led an enterprising journalist to find him living in the slums of Detroit. It’s a poetic and moving redemption ballad of a film. However, a series of recent reports have revealed that Rodriguez never really vanished and that he had been touring in Australia well into the 1980s. This information would have significantly diminished the impact of the film’s driving mystery. But in documentary, truth always trumps drama. Amazingly enough, mainstream media has yet to pick up this story and “Searching for Sugarman” remains the frontrunner in the race for Best Documentary. Ultimately, “Sugar Man” simply doesn’t have celebrity firepower to steal headlines from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Ben Affleck, so the press has been slow on the uptake of a story that deserves more attention than it’s been given thus far.
The bigger issue, however, is that any creative work should be judged based on the highest standards and ideals of its own medium. After the James Frey scandal erupted, the literary world grappled with very similar issues about the authorial responsibility to commit to telling the naked truth in anything classified as memoir or autobiography. And yet, even in the years since Frey-gate, the temptation to write fiction under the guise of fact has tarred such promising talents as Margaret Seltzer, Herman Rosenblat, and Matt McCarthy. Ironically, had any of these disgraced books been correctly labeled as fiction, they might never have been published. And if they had, they would have had to fight long and hard to find a readership.
What are your thoughts on the importance of sticking to the facts in dramatic and documentary filmmaking? If you read and loved a memoir that was later discredited as fake, how would that change your feelings about the book?