W. Joseph Campbell

Proxies for reality: Fact-based films and their mythmaking potential

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm

The Sunday “Outlook” section of the Washington Post usually is such a ZeroDarkThirty_posterjumble of thumbsucker essays and middling book reviews that it deserves just passing attention.

What made yesterday’s “Outlook” an exception was an engaging critique of Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial new movie about the CIA’s years-long hunt for terror leader Osama bin-Laden.

The critique, written by former CIA official Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., suggests anew the mythmaking capacity of fact-based films. “Inevitably,” Rodriguez writes of Zero Dark Thirty, “films like this come to be seen by the public as a sort of proxy for reality.”

And that’s especially troubling because, as Rodriguez also points out:

“One of the advantages of inhabiting the world of Hollywood is that you can have things both ways.” Publicity for Zero Dark Thirty emphasizes that it rests upon careful research, Rodriguez notes; at the same time, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, has insisted it’s “not a documentary.”

Carefully researched, yet with enough fictional or imaginative elements so that it’s no documentary: Such have been the ingredients of mythmaking by the cinema.

All the President’s Men offers a compelling example.

The hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that the dogged investigative journalism of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — was propelled and solidified by the cinematic treatment of Woodward and Bernstein‘s 1974 book, All the President’s Men.

The movie version was fact-based, but certainly no documentary treatment of Watergate (even though the Post once referred to the film as journalism’s “finest 2 hours and 16 minutes“).

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, All the President’s Men the movie offers “a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account of the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

The movie dramatized the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein while ignoring the far more decisive contributions of federal investigators, special prosecutors, and Congressional investigative panels.

The omissions made for a cleaner storyline — and promoted a media-centric myth that not even Woodward embraces.

“To say that the press brought down Nixon,” Woodward once told American Journalism Review, “that’s horseshit.”

WordPress_FreshlyPressed logoAll the President’s Men was made in 1976 and remains the most-viewed cinematic treatment of Watergate —  a “proxy for reality” about how America’s greatest political scandal was rolled up. It’s Watergate simplified.

Rodriguez says in his commentary that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty get a lot right: Notably, they “portray the hunt for bin Laden as a 10-year marathon, rather than a sprint ordered by a new president.”

His principal concern is the movie’s depiction of the interrogation of captured al-Qaeda operatives. The interrogation scenes early in the movie “torture the truth,” he writes, adding:

“The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.

“The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program which I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention.”

I’ve not seen Zero Dark Thirty. But Rodriguez’s critique seems well-reasoned. He advises theatergoers to recognize “that Zero Dark Thirty is more than a movie and less than the literal truth.”

I’d shift the obligation somewhat, away from moviegoers: It behooves the makers of fact-based movies to stipulate that “fact-based” doesn’t mean factual, that even high-quality cinematic treatments simplify and distort.

Fact-based movies ought not be served up in effect as history lessons for the public.

These are hardly new concerns, of course. “Is it possible,” Richard Bernstein wrote in 1989 in an essay in the New York Times, “to have successful cinema and good history at the same time?”

Perhaps, Bernstein added, “the rule of thumb is this: When artists, intentionally or not, distort the known facts to get an effect, either political or commercial, they are on the wrong side of the line between poetic truth and historical falsification. Artists who present as fact things that never happened, who refuse to allow the truth to interfere with a good story, are betraying their art and history as well.”

Ideally, fact-based movies would be so compelling as to stimulate interest and curiosity, to encourage passive theatergoers to find out more about the subject, to conduct some research on their own.

Doing so isn’t always easy; but it can be an antidote to cinematic mythmaking.


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