The “Truth” About Fact-based Movies

Controversy about the accuracy of the “facts” in a fact-based film is hardly new. Accusations of factual inaccuracy have become a staple of award season campaigning and journalism, part of an annual orgy of “fact-checking,” with charges of falsity leveled against many Oscar-winning films (examples: “Schindler’s List,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “The King’s Speech”) and runners-up (like “Zero Dark Thirty”). But this year, with fully half of Oscar’s Best Picture Nominees (“American Sniper,” “Selma,” “The Imitation Game, “The Theory of Everything”) and a number of other top nominees (“Foxcatcher,” “Wild,” “Unbroken”) falling into the fact-based category, the Truth Squads have gone into overdrive.

“Selma” has probably come into the most—or, at least, the most high-profile—criticism, specifically for its portrayal of the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in the words of The Wrap, became only the “Latest to Criticize ‘Selma’s’ Ava DuVernay Over LBJ Portrayal” when she used her op-ed column to opine that DuVernay’s depiction of Johnson as an “obstacle” to passage of the Voting Rights Act was “egregious.” (“NY Times’ Maureen Dowd Slams ‘Selma” for ‘Artful Falsehood” headlined The Hollywood Reporter.) In Dowd’s view, Johnson and King should have been portrayed as “allies,” but now she fears that a “generation of young would see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.”

How exactly did DuVernay create this “artful falsehood”? What “facts” did she get wrong? Dowd, like other critics of the film, points to the scene in the film in which Johnson explains to King that, while he (Johnson) supports a voting rights bill in principle, as a political priority, it is more important to the president to push his War on Poverty first. “This voting thing is just going to have to wait,” LBJ says in the film. Former Johnson aides, like Jack Valenti and Joseph Califano, Jr., have raised a fuss about this scene, suggesting that it portrays Johnson as an enemy of King and the civil rights movement. Dowd, while not entirely agreeing with the Johnson partisans, still comes to this conclusion: “There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him.”

But come on, Ms. Dowd. It’s not as if the movie’s Johnson is made to say that that the voting rights act has to await enactment until Johnson can push through Congress tax cuts for the rich. The fact that his priority is the eradication of poverty is hardly a slap at the man or a stain on his reputation. It’s a reasonable, if not the only, interpretation of his record, one for which there is, at least, some support, gleaned from facts cited in fact by Dowd herself in her column.

What’s wrong with Dowd’s analysis is her ultimate conclusion, premised, as it is, on the notion that there is only one “truth” that ought to be honored by filmmakers and novelists and playwrights who want to dramatize historical events. Dowd is so sure of her position that she cites herself on the issue: “As I have written about ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ and ‘Argo,’ and as The New York Review of Books makes clear about ‘The Imitation Game,’ the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough. Why twist it?”

The problem is: who’s to say what the “truth” is and when it is being twisted? That problem is, in fact, amply demonstrated by the very New York Review article Dowd goes out of her way to invoke. In that article, entitled “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing,” Christian Caryl criticizes the film for portraying its protagonist, Alan Turing, one of the most important figures in the history of mathematics and computing, as a “tortured genius” and as “a martyr of a homophobic Establishment.”

Caryl argues that the filmmakers distort history in numerous ways, among them: by showing Turing and a small group of colleagues working for two years, without success, at breaking the allegedly “unbreakable” Nazi Enigma codes before Turing, more or less single-handedly, invents a computing machine that allows the English to decipher the Enigma codes completely; by, in Caryl’s words, “transform[ing] the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love to hate”; and by ending the story with Turing committing suicide, after he elected to undergo chemical castration procedures, rather than go to prison for violating England’s anti-sodomy laws.

Caryl is no doubt correct that Turing—even Turing and his small band of colleagues—were hardly working in isolation. “In fact, Bletchley Park [the top secret research facility where Turing worked during World War II]—and not only Turing’s legendary Hut 8—was doing productive work from the very beginning of the war…. By the end of the war there were some 9,000 people working on the project, processing thousands of intercepts per day.” Okay, but how does the movie distort history by portraying Turing and his Hut 8 team as the ones who broke the Enigma code? Does the fact that others—even many others—were doing “productive work” at Bletchley Park detract from Turing’s accomplishments?

The film is hardly alone in crediting Turing with breaking the Enigma codes, although there were important innovations that proceeded, and important innovations that followed, Turing’s work. In his recent bestseller, The Innovators (see pages 77-79), Walter Isaacson explains that, before Turing and his team came up with their device, known as the “bombe,” Polish scientists had created a machine that could read some German messages, and that, after the Germans adopted a different system of encoding their most important messages, a different team at Bletchley Park invented a device, called the Colossus, that allowed the British to read these more highly encrypted messages, but none of this proves that “The Imitation Game” “distorts” history by focusing on what Turning and his Hut 8 team actually did accomplish.

On that issue, at least, one can understand Caryl’s point and the evidence he might marshal to support it. On his other points, Caryl is, however, on much shakier ground. “The Imitation Game” portrays Turing as moody and socially awkward. There appears to be more than a little evidence to support this in the historical record. Isaacson (p.41), for example, quotes a letter to Turing’s parents from the headmaster of a boarding school Turing attended: “Undoubtedly, he’s not a ‘normal’ boy; not the worse for that, but probably less happy.” Caryl argues that the portrayal of Turing as an unhappy man is contravened by “the fact that he had a sprightly sense of humor, something that comes through vividly in the accounts of his friends.”

What kind of evidence is this? It’s a little like accepting, at face value, the testimonials from friends and neighbors (“he was always such a nice, well-behaved young man”) that invariably appear on the local news during reports on the arrest of a serial killer. And since when is a sense of humor (even a “sprightly” one) proof of an upbeat disposition?

Even more egregious is Caryl’s assertion that Turing’s death “might” have been the result of an accident, rather than suicide. Caryl makes reference to two different biographies of Turing, one, published in 1983, by Andrews Hodges, for whom Turing’s death was “clearly a suicide,” and the other, by Jack Copeland, his “more recent biographer,” who “isn’t so sure.” Copeland, according to Caryl, “offers sound evidence that the death might have actually been accidental, the result of a self-rigged laboratory where Turing was conducting experiments with cyanide. He left no suicide letter.” Moreover, Caryl writes, “Copeland also leaves open the possibility of foul play, which can’t be dismissed out of hand, when you consider that all of this happened during the period of McCarthyite hysteria, an era when homosexuality was regarded as an inherent ‘security risk.’”

The fact that Copeland “isn’t so sure” Turing committed suicide and that he speculates that “foul play” might have been involved is hardly a basis to chastise the makers of “The Imitation Game” for “distorting” history when all they did was portray the generally accepted version of Turing’s story for which there is also sound evidence and which, given Turing’s circumstances—his criminal conviction, his chemical castration—is at least as likely to be true as Caryl’s and Copeland’s more fanciful alternative theories.

Why then was Maureen Dowd so quick to cite Caryl’s article in support of her assertion that filmmakers need only dramatize the “truth” without alteration or embellishment or “twisting” it? Because Caryl, like Dowd, seems to be convinced that his own version of the “truth” is, in fact, the truth and anyone else’s version is a distortion, even if, as is clearly the case with Caryl’s arguments, it is built on a platform made up largely of speculation. If Maureen Dowd wanted to write a version of “Selma” in which Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson are allies, she could do it and no one could rightfully say that was a “distortion.” If Christian Caryl wanted to make a version of “The Imitation Game” in which Alan Turing was a genius with a “sprightly sense of humor” who was ultimately done in by evil forces, he could do it, and all we could do is say, well, it might have happened that way (and hope that he enlisted Oliver Stone to direct the movie).

But it is foolish to dismiss “Selma” and “The Imitation Game” as historical distortions because the filmmakers’ interpretation of events may not completely correspond with our own, just as it is foolish to dismiss “American Sniper” because it whitewashes the character of its protagonist, Chris Kyle, and because it doesn’t make a point of saying that we went to war in Iraq for the wrong reasons, and just as it is foolish to dismiss “The Theory of Everything” because it is too “sympathetic” to Stephen Hawking.

“Fact-checking” a movie that is “based on” or “inspired by” historical events is not a useful exercise. It’s not a documentary (and even documentaries have a point of view and are edited to include and exclude certain “facts.”). The real test of a movie is not, or ought not to be, whether the film gets every “fact” right, but whether, overall, its interpretation of historical events is a legitimate one, recognizing that there might well be other alternative interpretations of those same events. This doesn’t justify propaganda, which, by definition, does not offer a legitimate interpretation of history, nor does it excuse blatantly false factual lapses, such as the suggestion in “Selma” that Lyndon Johnson authorized J. Edgar Hoover to investigate and exploit Martin Luther King’s extra-marital activities. (Some of Ava DuVernay’s admirers, such as Ann Hornaday, of The Washington Post, have tried to pass this off as an editing gaffe, but Duvernay had to be aware of what her film was implying, even if she didn’t come right out and say it.) But “Selma” is too good and too important a film to be dismissed because of this one mistake.

An historical film cannot be false, but it does not have to be completely “accurate,” either. Ultimately, a film and its filmmakers do not have to answer for the “truth” of the picture—who but God, after all, ever really knows the “truth”? Rather, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, the ultimate test is the “truthiness” of the piece. No matter how many factual “errors” the critics of a film may cite, if the movie ultimately gives us a reasonable, supportable, generally accurate interpretation of historical events, it passes the truthiness test and deserves to be judged, not as a polemic, but as a work of art.

About Lawrence Peitzman

Lawrence Peitzman is a lawyer in Los Angeles.
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