Wednesday, March 06, 2013

On Lincoln and historical accuracy

I finally watched Lincoln last weekend after months of intending to see it but putting it on the backburner or wanting to see other movies more. I had some inherent interest in seeing it, particularly as a huge fan of Daniel Day-Lewis and of historical biopics in particular, but it mostly felt like the kind of film that I should watch, rather than one I would rush out to see; I guess that's why it took me over three months to get out to see it. It was, after all, a box-office and critical hit, the highest-grossing "serious" movie of the year, and the most-nominated film at the Academy Awards, so it was kind of inevitable that I would see it as a history teacher and as a cinephile. Anyway, I appreciated the film and at times even enjoyed it for what it was, not just for the fact that now I have seen it. I agree with the general critical consensus that it is close to perfectly constructed - Day-Lewis' performance is iconic (though I would argue that it wasn't as impressive as several of the other nominated performances this year or several of his past performances), the supporting cast is fantastic, the script is impeccable, and Spielberg's direction was spot on. It was his best film since Saving Private Ryan, one of the year's best films, and an immediate leader in the question of what a historical movie should look and feel like. So why did it not win Best Picture this year? I have a couple of thoughts.
The first reason that it did not win was that it felt too much like it should win. One of the interesting talking points about Lincoln was how it immediately heralded the true onset of awards season, as I discussed in mid-November, and how it immediately emerged as the movie to beat for the Oscar. As we walked out of the theatre, my friend asked "So how did that NOT win Best Picture?" because it seemed so perfectly scripted to win. Everything about the movie, especially its opening and closing scenes, screamed that "Lincoln is a movie that is supposed to win awards"! They fit the tone of the movie, but the result is that it becomes almost more about the experience of watching the movie than actually being drawn into the movie itself. I think that part of the argument against Lincoln's possible victory is that the way in which the movie was constructed seemed to make it too predictable or too inevitable that it would win. Normally, this would not have been a problem, but after two years of wins in that vein - The King's Speech undeservedly defeating The Social Network in 2010 and The Artist steamrolling to its inexorable victory last year - the Academy needed to shake it up (so to speak). I think that the win of The King's Speech actually was a huge factor in Lincoln not winning this year, as it seems that the Academy is trying (at times) to shed the image it cultivated in the mid 1990s when movies like Forrest Gump, Braveheart, The English Patient, Titanic, and Shakespeare in Love (each of them textbook "Best Pictures") beat movies such as Pulp Fiction, Fargo, L.A. Confidential, and Saving Private Ryan (itself with elements of "Best Pictureness") over a five-year span. As for Lincoln's actual reception, I felt that, shy of a win for Best Adapted Screenplay, that it was almost perfectly honoured at the Oscars. It was the frontrunner with twelve nominations but ending up with two wins, including one high-profile win; I expected three or maybe four, but the low number of Oscars it won is testament to the overall quality of this year's films. So, in short, it suffered a bit of an Oscar backlash, which contributed to other movies being honoured.
But there's another big part as to why it lost, especially to Argo - it was too historically accurate. Take a second and consider some of the "historical" films, including biopics, that have won in the past three decades: The King's Speech, Braveheart, Amadeus, Titanic, Gladiator, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind, Gandhi...the list could go on. What do they all have in common, aside from that feeling of being "Best Pictures" and that each one won over at least one much more deserving nominee? They have all been criticized for being far too liberal with their treatment of history, as they all manipulated certain truths and realities for artistic license. Argo was roundly criticized for how it de-emphasized the role of the Canadians in the escape and how it "Hollywoodized" the events in a way that created a new story, even as it seemed to celebrate how accurate it was. It seems that it was true enough to be considered authentic, even as it liberally twisted the truth along its way. Lincoln, on the other hand, was subject to much more subtle criticisms, which focuses primarily on aspects of the script. The two chief issues that were raised were questioning the authenticity of the words used in the script - even writer Tony Kushner admitted that it was difficult to make every word absolutely authentic - and the fact that all four congressmen from Connecticut voted in favour of the amendment, rather than the two depicted in the film (a change Kushner inserted for "dramatic tension"). I think that Lincoln's overall sense of accuracy made these small issues stand out more than Argo's glaring rewrites of far more recent events, and that they actually became far more damaging to Lincoln's Oscar push than Argo's egregious revisions did to its (obviously). Lincoln was being evaluated almost as a documentary in that sense, whereas Argo was free to be seen as a "movie" - and there's no way a docudrama could actually win Best Picture. Lincoln was too "real", it seemed, and its minor issues interfered with that reality. Of course, Lincoln's text, context, and subtext was loaded with biases, inventions, creations, directions, and interpretations that may have significantly diverged from reality, but it's the perception of accuracy that dogged the movie's campaign, rather than the reality of it. I think that the same kind of issues plagued The Social Network two years ago, even though its writer, Aaron Sorkin, openly acknowledged that he was more interested in storytelling than in getting every last detail correct.
This issue of historical accuracy versus artistic license has been part of movies since film was introduced; consider D.W. Griffith's seminal 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which casts some interesting light on the KKK, for example. It's a discussion that is always interesting as a history teacher, and it means that I am always having to be critical and cynical of "historical" movies in addition to providing that extra layer of cynicism if I choose to use a film in class. It makes it difficult to use films sometimes, since I feel like I have to compensate or at least explain that artistic license to students who otherwise do not have a filter for understanding either the history or the nature of film. That's perhaps what is most distressing to me: that most viewers cannot or do not differentiate between art and truth, and that filmmaker's versions of stories often become synonymous with the stories themselves. Lincoln almost could have avoided this issue, but it failed, like so many of its predecessors have. It was accurate enough that its errors became more of a point of criticism, and it will always have that asterisk whenever it is used to teach American history. Sure, it's not as bad as U-571 or The Patriot for rewriting history, but its minor foibles are enough to have to explain and that it lost the Oscar, as well as some respect from historians, even though it really would not have changed the film to have been more accurate.
I would love to see this conflict between accuracy and artistry be resolved and eliminated. I would love to see directors and writers and producers assume that moviegoers could handle the truth and that real events would make good stories. I really wish that filmmakers would not make me have to include an extratextual explanation when I show a film or edit out grossly inaccurate portions of films when I want to show them to students. I really want to see a film that can actually find artistic license and historical accuracy. Then again, what would history professors and teachers have to do with their lives if movies were actually accurate? After all, at least half of our jobs is feeling like we need to counteract the untruths perpetuated by the media, putting movies and television shows on trial for all to see. Perhaps it is we historians who need to give up the fight and just assume that historical accuracy in movies is an unattainable dream; then again, maybe we just need an advocate like Lincoln who can help us push our Conversational Amendment on the moviegoing public. Or maybe it's just up to the people themselves: I'm doing what I can on a small scale, and if all of us who care just help our friends, family, and colleagues become better historians and better movie-watchers, I will be satisfied.

1 comment:

  1. Sharon6.3.13

    I think it lost because it's just too political. I kept waiting for Spielberg to give me something to identify with, or a character to root for. Watching it is an "outside looking in" experience, with nothing that tugs at your heart (except Sally Field's seminal scene). Spielberg did a fine job, but it was just fine, not great. At least I felt something when I watched Argo; manipulated truth that it was, it was entertaining. Lincoln just felt like a series of well depicted historical events instead of an engaging story.

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