“Why does all this matter? Because we are losing history. It is not the fault of Hollywood, as they used to call it, but Hollywood is a contributor to it. When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging. Those who make movies and television dramas should start caring about this. It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.”
—-Former Reagan speechwriter and current columnist Peggy Noonan, after citing the material historical misrepresentations in the Netflix series “The Crown” and the new Spielberg film, “The Post.”
I have written about the ethics of misrepresenting history in films many times, always facing the “Lighten up! It’s just a movie!” chorus. As Noonan explains deftly, the stakes are different now, in an age of rotten public education, mass media and internet indoctrination. The first time I wrote about this issue was 2010, in the post “Titanic” Ethics. It concluded in part,
I don’t blame Cameron for not basing his portrayal on evidence that only was clarified years after his film. I fault him for discounting the testimony of survivors, and misinforming the public by plastering a false version on a giant screen for millions to see, knowing that they would trust that a man who would insist that the doomed ship’s china pattern was accurate…Now the film is back, bigger than ever, and false representations of Officer Murdock, “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, the sinking itself, and other aspects of the iconic event will be embedded even deeper into our historical understanding. It didn’t have to be that way, and it is wrong that it is. History, the public, and the 1500 who died that night in 1912 deserve better.
I’ve seen “The Crown,” and like it a lot. The portrayals that Noonan complains about, however, especially the suggestion that Jack Kennedy abused Jackie, rang false immediately. As for “The Post,” which I haven’t seen, Noonan calls out a misrepresentation of a cultural villain whom the film-makers probably thought nobody would rise to defend:
President Nixon is portrayed as the villain of the story. And that is the opposite of the truth. Nixon did not start the Vietnam War, he ended it. His administration was not even mentioned in the Pentagon Papers, which were finished before he took office.
When that dark, sad man tried to halt publication of the document, he was protecting not his own reputation but in effect those of others. Those others were his political adversaries—Lyndon Johnson and Ben Bradlee’s friend JFK—who the papers revealed had misled the public. If Nixon had been merely self-interested, he would have faked umbrage and done nothing to stop their publication. Even cleverer, he could have decried the leaking of government secrets while declaring and bowing to the public’s right to know.Instead, he did what he thought was the right thing—went to court to prevent the publication of secrets that might harm America’s diplomatic standing while it attempted to extricate itself from a war….His attempt to stop publication was wrong—the public did have a right to know. But he did what he thought was the responsible thing, and of course pays for it to this day.
Were the makers of “The Post” ignorant of all this? You might think so if it weren’t for the little coda they tag on to the end. Suddenly a movie about the Pentagon Papers is depicting the Watergate break-in, which would take place a year later. As if to say: OK, Nixon isn’t really the villain of our story, but he became a villain soon enough. It struck me not as a failed attempt at resolving a drama but an admission of a perpetrated injustice.
And, of course, LBJ and JFK were Democrats. Once upon a time I would have assumed that such manipulations and distortions of history were in the service of art and commerce, and not in concert with the news media to advance a partisan agenda. I don’t assume that any more. Those who control the past control the future, George Orwell said, if Hollywood controls the past, it should be obvious who will benefit.