“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: Continue reading
“How to reconcile facts and feelings, art and fealty to the truth? When filmmakers recall with pride about the deep reporting and research they’ve done for their projects, then they deserve to be held accountable for their projects. For fact-based films, accuracy becomes a formal element, along with acting, design and cinematography. It’s up to each viewer to identify the threshold where artistic license compromises the integrity of the entire endeavor. Cinema has more responsibility in this regard precisely because of its heightened realism, its ability to burrow into our collective consciousness and memory, where the myth has a tendency to overpower settled fact. But viewers have responsibilities, too. If accuracy has become a formal element of historical dramas, then the ensuing fact-checks have become just as integral a part of how we view them. That means it’s incumbent on audiences to engage in a mode of spectatorship that, rather than decide who’s right, can listen to and respect expert critiques, and still open themselves up to a piece of filmed entertainment that speaks to less literal, more universal truths.”
—–Ann Hornaday, Washington Post film critic, on the controversy regarding the counter-factual treatment of President Lydon Johnson in the new film, “Selma.”
The question of whether film makers have an ethical obligation to fairly represent history, and particularly individual historical figures, in their movies has been a topic visited frequently at Ethics Alarms, and I’m not going to re-hash conclusions that have been thoroughly discussed before, such as
…here, regarding the casting of “The Impossible” with a gleamingly light-skinned central family and the changing of the real life heroine from Spanish to British
…here, discussing complaints that a fictional event was not portrayed accurately in “Noah”
…here, exploring the many falsehoods, some quite despicable, in James Cameron’s “Titanic”
…here, regarding unfair criticism of “Argo”
and here, discussing “Lincoln” screenwriter, playwright Tony Kushner’s inexcusable choice to represent a real life former Congressman voting against the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery when in fact he voted for it.
The conclusion of that last one sums up the lessons of the rest, I think. Kushner’s defense against criticism of the collateral damage his invented facts wreaked was to argue that they were legitimate tactics in the pursuit of drama and “greater truths.” He then compared smearing the reputation of a Congressman, to the detriment of his descendants, to misrepresenting the kinds of socks Lincoln wore. (Kushner can be a brilliant writer, but his ideological utilitarianism is repellant.) I wrote:
If we have the education, curiosity, perspective and respect for our origins and those who have gone before us, the calendar is a source of constant reminders of what matters in life, and how we can be better citizens and human beings. It is a common belief among Millennials, and a lot of older Americans too, that history is irrelevant to their lives, and this is both a fallacy and a self-inflicted handicap. Not that keeping history in mind is easy: in this month, which T.S. Elliot dubbed “the cruelest,” paying appropriate respect by remembering is especially difficult.
Still, respecting history is our duty. It won’t be remembered, perhaps, but in April, 2012, a 23-year-old drunken fool named Daniel Athens was arrested for climbing over a barrier to urinate on a wall at the Alamo. Monday, a Texas judge threw the book at him, sentencing him to 18 months in state prison for vandalizing a National Monument and a shrine. The sentence seems extreme, and is a good example of how the law is a blunt weapon with which to enforce ethics. The Alamo has near religious significance in Texas, brave men died there, and the ruins serve as a symbol of critical virtues like loyalty, sacrifice, dedication, courage and patriotism. Athens, himself a Texan, defiled the memory of the fallen and symbolically rejected the values and heritage of his community and fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the harshness of the sentence will create sympathy for him: 18 months for peeing? But how else does a culture reinforce the importance of respect for the past? I don’t have an answer. Perhaps I would have sentenced him to take an exam on the lives of Travis, Crockett, Bowie, Seguin and the rest, as well as the siege itself, and imposed the jail term only if he flunked.
Yesterday, Major League Baseball celebrated the heroism and transformative life of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 by becoming baseball’s first black player, setting in motion powerful forces that propelled the cause of civil rights. Every player wore Robinson’s now retired uniform number 42, and there were commemorative ceremonies in the ball parks where it wasn’t too cold and wet to play ball. This remembrance had a difficult time competing with tax day, as history usually does when our immediate life concerns beckon.
Other important historical events deserving reflection, however, were more or less ignored entirely, for April 15 is a historically awful day: Continue reading
I suppose some of you may have thought about this two years ago, when the Spanish film “The Impossible” was first released. I, however, take a while to catch up with my movie-viewing, and though the film was much praised by critics and got Naomi Watts an Academy Award nomination, I had not seen the film until recently. “The Impossible,” about as accurately as a motion picture can, tells the amazing story of how Spanish physician María Belón, her husband Enrique Álvarezs, and her three young sons miraculously survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami when the family was on vacation in Thailand.
It is an engrossing, harrowing movie. I was surprised to find out, however that the family’s name wasn’t “Bennett,” and that they weren’t British, as the movie presented them. Apparently to maximize box office receipts, the film makers decided to take the heroic story of a real family and make the characters “more relatable” by recasting them as English-speaking Brits. There was a minor controversy about the film “whitewashing” the story*, but not much of that made it into the mainstream media. Belón, after all, is white. She was an active participant in the appropriation of story and that of her husband and sons, and they all profited from it, at least financially. Still, the movie’s point of view left a bad taste in the mouths of some international critics. Here is Australian critic Ruby Hamad:
“Based on the true story of a dark haired and darkish-skinned Spanish family, the filmmakers admitted to changing their nationality and casting lily-white actors in order to make the story ‘universal’. In other words, only white people can stand in for the human race as whole. For this reason, Thailand and its people are mere backdrops for the story of a Caucasian family who learn the hard way that even western privilege is no match for the brute force of mother nature.”
Your (two-year late) Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, therefore, is:
Is “The Impossible” unethical”?
Several well-placed critics are taking “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner to task for what they believe are unethical misrepresentations of fact in the much-praised, and supposedly scrupulously accurate film. He, on the other hand, is annoyed. Kushner counters that unlike in history books where a historian gives a well-researched “a blow-by-blow account,” it is reasonable and ethical for a screenwriter to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn’t always organize itself according to the rules of drama. It’s ridiculous. It’s like saying that Lincoln didn’t have green socks, he had blue socks.”
I’m going to spare Kushner lawyerly word-parsing and not hold him to “a greater historical truth,” though I suspect that in his hands (he is a skilled political propagandist as well as writer), we would not be pleased with what that license would bring. A politically sympatico film director named Oliver Stone, for example, thought it served a greater historical truth to present completely fictional evidence that Lyndon Johnson was complicit in John F. Kennedy’s assassination, even though Stone’s vehicle, “JFK,” was marketed as a veritable documentary on the “truth” of the Kennedy assassination. Let’s just say that Kushner feels that in a work of entertainment and drama, strictly accurate representation of all historical facts is impossible and unreasonable to expect or require.
I agree. But there is a big, big difference between the ethics of showing Lincoln wearing the wrong color socks, and representing a highly dubious story as fact to denigrate the reputation of a probable hero, as James Cameron did in “Titanic” when he showed First Officer William Murdoch taking a bribe to let a passenger on a lifeboat ( fantasy), shooting a passenger (pure speculation), and committing suicide (denied by a fellow officer under oath at the inquest). Continue reading
Rescue is a frequent topic on Ethics Alarms, usually in a disturbing context. We all have a duty to rescue others in peril, but we should never underestimate the powerful forces that often work against that duty. Rescue can be dangerous or frightening, and often there are perplexing questions about when an individual has done enough to ensure a rescue, and what constitutes “enough,” especially if the rescue fails.
In March, the Star Princess—a luxury cruise ship operated by Carnival—was on a cruise around South America. Three of the passengers were bird-watchers, who eschewed shuffleboard and the other fun activities organized by whoever was the counterpart to Lauren Tewes on “The Love Boat” to use their binoculars and telescopes to spot seabirds from the ship’s decks.
It was March 10 when one of the bird-lovers, Jeff Gilligan from Portland, Oregon., saw a boat with a person standing up in it, waving a dark piece of cloth. The vessel was at least a mile away. Another Oregon bird-watcher, Judy Meredith, told reporters that when she focused her lenses on the boat, it was clear to her that the man waving the cloth was trying to get the Star Princess’s attention, and that the boat was drifting, without an engine. She went inside to try to alert the crew about the situation. After she talked to one crew member, she says, he called the bridge and she talked him through what she and Gilligan had seen.”I was trying to have a sense or urgency in my voice — and tell them that the boat was in distress, and they were trying to get our attention.” Another crew member used Gilligan’s telescope to look at the drifting boat, and confirmed their assessment. The boat was drifting in the open seas and in peril. Gilligan said that at that point “We were a bit relieved because he had confirmed that he had seen what we were describing. We expected the ship to turn back or stop or something.” Continue reading
This is Titanic week, as all of you who don’t live in tunnels like prairie dogs must know. It has been a century since the sinking of the Great Unsinkable, with the deaths of 1500 souls including some of the great artistic, financial and industrial greats of the era. James Cameron’s 1997 film is also returning this week in 3-D, which means that the misconceptions, false accounts and outright misrepresentations the film drove into the public consciousness and popular culture will be strengthened once again. I think it would be ethical, on this centennial of the tragedy, for those in a position to do so to make a concerted effort to honor the victims and their families by honoring the truth. Thanks to Cameron, this is impossible. Continue reading