With Hollywood running out of ideas, there has been a resurgence of historical films. In the past two years alone, we’ve seen blockbuster releases such as Argo, Dallas Buyers Club, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, 12 Years a Slave, and then some.
Film is an accessible medium. Its quick and lasting impressions are appealing to everyone from children to the elderly. Far and wide, people prefer spending two enjoyable hours in a theater over 500 pages of a dense history textbook.
But as books go bunk, their truth appears to be losing its currency amongst consumers. Movies, even as they take on the role of “historical fact,” miss their mark.
Take Ben Affleck’s blockbuster hit Argo, which won the coveted Best Picture award at the Oscars. The film follows the escape of staffers from the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Iranian revolution in 1979. In the most gut wrenching scene of the movie, the staffers’ plane is taking off just as the revolutionaries discover their identities.
Critics and audiences were raving. It seemed like only Canada and Iran were out of the cheering section.
The problem: it never actually happened. Sure, the staffers did escape without a bruise but everything after their arrival to the airport was, in fact, smooth. There was neither suspense nor danger.
But the most shocking historical interpretation of the film wasn’t the overly dramatized escape but the omission of Canada’s role. President Jimmy Carter even told CNN “90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian.” And these kinds of gross inaccuracies aren’t limited to Argo.
Undoubtedly, the biggest historical drama released last year was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The film was adapted from Solomon Northup’s autobiography of the same name.
The opening scene, where Solomon is seen in the dead of night in a sexual encounter with a woman—in the plantation’s overpopulated chattel house, no less—is completely miserable, but undeniably human. Yet this incident never happened, at least not according to Solomon.
The story presented by McQueen is real. Solomon Northup was a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He was sold and traded among slave owners, ultimately regaining his freedom 12 years later. None of this was cut in the film. No one’s role in his escape was undermined. And this wasn’t simply a hurrah for the American government, quite the contrary.
By and large, Argo and 12 Years a Slave are two completely different films. Both Oscar-winners, they look at two histories with very different approaches. McQueen distinguished himself from Argo by hiring historians to advise scriptwriters, avoiding Argo’s biggest fault of failing to incorporate rigorous historical standards into its dialogue, storyline, and even backstory.
A high school history teacher may not place too much importance on the details of the embassy employees’ escape, but when audiences are fed fiction played off as fact, miseducation becomes a serious concern.
It would be much like presenting Dallas Buyers Club as a historical account of the doctors or transwomen during the AIDS crisis. Rayon, Jared Leto’s character of a transwoman who works with Ron Woodruf, wasn’t a real person. Neither was Dr. Eve Saks, Jennifer Garner’s character of a doctor working with AIDS patients. The two characters were conceived based on interviews conducted solely for the film. The only organic character was Ron Woodruf, and even then, many believe scriptwriter Craig Borten took serious liberties in the character’s development.
Affleck knowingly changed the plot of Argo, adding text at the end of the film to make up for the discrepancies. But the postscript isn’t clear enough. “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran.” Tossing this statement in at the closing credits of this two-hour film doesn’t seem to reverse anything previously portrayed.
I’m all for a good story, but it’s dangerous to conflate verisimilitude with veritable truth. Argo was a great movie, and so was Dallas Buyers Club, but these films don’t serve as biopic. Instead, they serve more as pop culture records for our own time. Then again, maybe it’s like Col. Jessep once famously declared: “You can’t handle the truth.”