History According To Hollywood

"History will be kind to me", Winston Churchill said, "for I intent to write it." Sir Winston was an author and had not yet discovered the advantages of being an auteur. Books are, compared to movies, relatively ineffective at establishing conventional wisdom. Who did Fletcher Christian look like on the HMS Bounty? Why Marlon Brando of course, if not a young Mel Gibson. That's how they'll always be remembered. The Christian Science Monitor reported that "television and movies" are more important than books for teaching young minds about history. Now the Washington Post cries foul. In an editorial it protests that "Fair Game", a movie which depicts the adventures of Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame, bears to no resemblance to the events reported in its pages.

"Fair Game," based on books by Mr. Wilson and his wife, is full of distortions - not to mention outright inventions. ... The movie portrays Ms. Plame as having cultivated a group of Iraqi scientists ... Ms. Plame did not work directly on the program, and it was not shut down because of her identification ... the movie portrays Mr. Wilson as a whistle-blower ...

an investigation by the Senate intelligence committee found that Mr. Wilson's reporting did not affect the intelligence community's view on the matter, and an official British investigation found that President George W. Bush's statement in a State of the Union address that Britain believed that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger was well-founded ...

"Fair Game" also resells the couple's story that Ms. Plame's exposure was the result of a White House conspiracy. A lengthy and wasteful investigation by a special prosecutor found no such conspiracy - but it did confirm that the prime source of a newspaper column identifying Ms. Plame was a State Department official, not a White House political operative.

Why would they expect a movie to accurately depict the truth?  The easiest narrative to write is one in which the good guys are handsome and the bad guys are ugly. Moreover, they should play recognizable types. Once these types have been constructed, and many have been constructed by the Washington Post itself,  the audience expects to find them in the story. Modern mass culture has already created a number of such archetypes. The bigoted preacher, the crusading reporter, the greedy Republican, the wise Chinese kung-fu master who only speaks in riddles and of course, the Whistleblower. Since reality doesn't always oblige by conforming to the stereotype, the filmmaker is often faced with a dilemma? Do you make a move that the audience can believe or a movie that is true?

The answer is that it is hard. Culture has already created a number of narrative "primitives" -- building blocks from which a film-maker must construct his story. Unless he is willing to take the trouble to create custom characters like a sincere preacher, a lying reporter or glory-seeking whistleblower, he would be better served to order out for a standard part. No filing down or adjustment is thereafter necessary.

One way out of this bind is to make films which make no claim to depict real events. "The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."  Then you can use stereotypes to your hearts content. Otherwise some persons in the audience may actually think the events described in the script are true. And sometimes they think it is true anyway. In 1938 Orson Welles' radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds caused a panic. The effectiveness was due in part to Welles' adoption of the signal characteristics of a radio bulletin.

Thousands of people, believing they were under attack by Martians, flooded newspaper offices and radio and police stations with calls, asking how to flee their city or how they should protect themselves from "gas raids." Scores of adults reportedly required medical treatment for shock and hysteria.

The hoax worked, historians say, because the broadcast authentically simulated how radio worked in an emergency.

"Audiences heard their regularly scheduled broadcast interrupted by breaking news," said Michele Hilmes, a communications professor at University of Wisconsin in Madison and author of Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952.

Despite the fact that "Fair Game" is coming out in movie houses, in a format traditionally reserved to serve up entertainment, fantasy and fiction, a lot of people, as the Christian Science Monitor notes, will still use it as a reference for history.  They don't perform a signals analysis. They just believe things because  Sean Penn says so.  Fortunately, serious intellectuals would never fall for such a thing as the War of Worlds hoax or a fictional depiction of Valerie Plame. They know better. They get their facts straight from the source, like Wikileaks. They know it is true because they recognize the format: diplomatic cables and military message heades. Why of course it's true.

"History will be kind to me for I intent to write it" are wise words to remember from Sir Winston. But he also said this, "in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Or as I like to put it: in wartime lies are so effective, they must always be surrounded by a filler of truth. Maybe we should ask Scooter Libby what he thinks.

No Way In is now out at Amazon.com