Historical Accuracy

Left to Right: Foxcatcher, Sony Pictures Classics; Selma, Paramount Pictures

Movies aren’t real.

We’re all on board with that, right? It shouldn’t be such a controversial idea, but it’s challenged consistently and vigorously whenever a film purports to be “based on a true story,” especially when the film in question is an awards contender. The most recent example centers around Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which apparently doesn’t depict President Lyndon Johnson with 100% accuracy. Foxcatcher subject Mark Schultz went on a Twitter rampage against director Bennett Miller a few weeks ago after its light homosexual subtext became apparent to him. This happens all the time, sparked by the complaints of people who would probably agree — if you asked them — that movies aren’t real.

So why all the controversy? To be honest, it’s not hard to see the train of thought here. If a movie claims to represent reality, is it unfair to expect accuracy in that representation? Sure, movies aren’t real, but if a movie makes that claim first, does it relinquish its right to refuge in fictionalization? These complaints tend to become more intense during awards season, perhaps because people are reticent to anoint a film with an Oscar if that film is built on supposed false pretenses.

The problem is that this expectation doesn’t seem as absurd as it is. People may be consciously aware that The Hobbit doesn’t consist of actual footage of magical creatures swinging swords at each other, but subconsciously they force themselves to believe it. “Believability” gets bandied around constantly in discussions about film. “I just didn’t believe any of it,” people might say. Or, conversely, “I really believed every minute of it.” If a film is based in reality, particularly when it’s based in well-known historical events, that believability bar lowers. We don’t need to pretend that the events of Selma occurred, we know they did. So when we hear that the filmmakers fudged the details, it feels like a betrayal of our trust.

But why? Why should we hold historical films to these standards? After all, we know that David Oyelowo is not Martin Luther King Jr. We know that Tom Wilkinson is not President Johnson. We know that everything we’re seeing on screen is fake. And yet we insist on its exact replication of reality when we know that, at the end of the day, that simply isn’t possible. Mark Schultz may be offended by the way that Foxcatcher depicts him, and he has every right to be, but the Mark Schultz of Foxcatcher isn’t the real Mark Schultz. It’s a character, written as part of a narrative. The life experiences of the real Mark Schultz aren’t retroactively changed because they differ from what happens to the character Mark Schultz. Maybe that sounds like semantics, but if you break down this issue to its simplest elements, you find that things just don’t add up.

A lot of this comes down to where we draw the line. Selma offers another great example. Steven Spielberg holds the rights to King’s actual speeches, so none of them could be used in the film. The filmmakers had to write entirely new speeches in their place. There hasn’t been any uproar over this blatant violation of historical accuracy, has there? In this instance, people seem comfortable with the facts of the filmmaking world and the challenges they present in preserving accuracy. Why are some battles worth fighting and not others?

When you look at it that way, none of them seem worth fighting. And that’s because none of them are. Yes, Selma is telling the story of a real-life event, but it’s also telling a story. That’s the priority, because it isn’t a documentary. All it’s obligated to do is be compelling and thoughtful, and realism shouldn’t be a prerequisite to that end. There’s not an Oscar for “Most Accurate Representation of Reality”. We don’t walk out of theaters saying, “I really loved how it was all exactly like real life.” That’s not why we watch movies, and it’s not how we should watch movies. Movies aren’t real. If we can’t accept that basic premise, we should probably stop watching them.