“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
“Bennett” and Belón
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”?
Of course, some historical fabrications are harmless.
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
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