The big splash made by “Lincoln” at the recent Oscars ceremony has brought renewed debate about the role of movies in teaching history. “Lincoln” is one of several popular movies this year that draw on real-life historical events, embellishing details here and there for the sake of the story.
As made by Stephen Spielberg, “Lincoln” tries to get the look of the 19th century just right, even down to the period wallpaper and the books on Lincoln’s desk. The movie gives the impression of documentary authenticity, inviting us to think of ourselves as flies on the wall while the Great Emancipator debates the 13th amendment with his cabinet.
But screenplays being what they are, most of the dialogue is an imaginative speculation of what Lincoln and his contemporaries might have said, based on the clues of the historical record. “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner, a native of Louisiana, does what many accomplished dramatists, including William Shakespeare, have done through the ages. He uses history as source material for his story, but he also uses poetic license to make certain points. “Lincoln” is a work of drama, not journalism. The same can be said about “Argo,” another recent film about events concerning American hostages in Iran during the Carter Administration, as well as “Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatizes the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Residents of Louisiana have a special familiarity with Hollywood’s creative interpretation of historical events. One of the most fanciful readings of Louisiana’s past occurred in “Blaze,” the 1989 film starring Paul Newman as Gov. Earl Long and Lolita Davidovitch as the governor’s stripper companion, Blaze Starr. Casting the drop-dead handsome Newman as the pug-faced rustic Long told viewers not to expect historical accuracy. The movie had little to say, wasn’t very good and has been largely forgotten.
Filmmaker Oliver Stone’s “JFK” also played loose with the facts to assert the discredited idea that the late New Orleans resident Clay Shaw had a role in assassinating President John F. Kennedy. The movie was an unintentional self-parody of Stone’s paranoid style. As evidenced by so many of Stone’s other films, he’s never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like.
Are screenwriters and playwrights wrong to distort history for dramatic effect? New York Times critics Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott answer this question pretty well in a piece they jointly wrote for a recent edition of The Times. Invention, they wrote, “remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.”
At their best, historical movies should whet our appetite to learn more about the past. The real history, we suspect will always best be found in history books.