The brilliant Humberto Fontova tells a story in one of his books (I believe it’s Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him), about guitarist Carlos Santana being confronted once about wearing the iconic Che T-shirt. After deservedly getting an earful about what a murdering coward Che was, and how the counterculture’s favorite revolutionary icon despised musicians and artists like Santana himself, an irritated Santana reportedly sputtered, “You’re just hung up on the facts, man.”
In a recent article entitled “Washington-Set Films May Fudge Facts, But Good Ones Speak To Larger Truths,” the Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday discusses how D.C. audiences composed of political insiders scrutinize Hollywood’s D.C.-based historical dramas for fidelity to the facts. “Myth or reality?” she asks. “That’s the question posed by movies based on true events, and it’s a conundrum that Washington officialdom seems to have a perennial problem in reconciling.” As examples, she references such films as Charlie Wilson’s War, Thirteen Days, All the President’s Men, and of course, Oliver Stone’s controversial oeuvre: JFK, Nixon, and W. (I can’t tell you how long I’ve been wanting to use the word “oeuvre” in one of my blogs).
History buffs and D.C. insiders may nitpick about such films, but as Ms. Hornaday writes, “You don’t have to support Stone’s signature brand of revisionism to agree that overweening literalism can sometimes obscure a larger truth.”
Actually, the problem isn’t that adhering to the facts obscures the truth. The problem is that “overweening literalism” bogs down the storytelling. Bringing a fact-based story to the screen necessitates all sorts of manipulation of messy and inconvenient facts in order to compose a compelling, well-ordered tale: compressing time and events, creating composite characters and/or omitting others, putting imagined dialogue in the mouths of historical figures, etc. The trick, and the goal, is to manage all these creative techniques in a way that might “fudge facts,” as Ms. Hornaday says, but stays faithful to the truth.
She quotes The West Wing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin as calling nonfiction drama “a tricky needle to thread. When an audience sits in a theater having been told that ‘The Following is a True Story,’ they should look at it the way they’d look at a painting and not a photograph.” Exactly so, and I believe most audiences do view nonfiction dramas, or docudramas, that way. I believe most people understand that what they’re seeing is not a documentary or an exact record of facts, but an “artist’s rendition” of historical reality. (Even documentaries are not strictly collections of facts, of course; they too are carefully pieced together and shaped to tell an entertaining story from a particular point of view).
About All the President’s Men, which Hornaday says is considered the masterpiece of political drama, she notes that “it barely matters that the film’s most iconic piece of dialogue – ‘Follow the money’ – was never spoken in real life”:
[T]he movies about Washington that get the right stuff right – or get some stuff wrong but in the right way – become their own form of consensus history. ‘Follow the money,’ then, assumes its own totemic truth. Ratified through repeated viewings in theaters, on Netflix and beyond, these films become a mutual exercise in creating a usable past.
What prompted Ms. Hornaday’s article in the first place was the impending release of the Sean Penn-Naomi Watts political snoozer thriller Fair Game, about the “outing” of CIA agent Valerie Plame in the buildup to the Iraq War. When it hits theaters in November, she says D.C. audiences will “prepare to truth-squad the movie’s tiniest details.”
Actually, they won’t have to zero in on the tiniest details, because Fair Game is false in the broad strokes. The script clearly aims to convict the Bush administration and Karl Rove in particular for lying about going to war with Iraq and conspiring to “out” Plame’s identity in order to punish her ambassador husband Joe Wilson for exposing those “lies.” As I revealed when I first reviewed the script for Big Hollywood back in April:
[T]he truth is, it was State Department official Richard Armitage – a Bush critic, not an evil neocon – who leaked Plame’s name… Rove, Libby, Cheney, Bush – the whole criminal pantheon of the Left’s fevered imagination – were not responsible for Plame’s outing… Yet Armitage’s name never appears in the script. And how could it? That would defuse the filmmakers’ intent to demonize Rove and Bush and to condemn the war as shameful, unjust American aggression.
In the case of Fair Game, the filmmakers have not merely tweaked the facts to better tell the truth; they have intentionally buried the truth in order to replace it with a narrative that they want to see become accepted as historical fact – their “larger truth.”
Contrast this with the Left’s response to the 2006 ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11, which dramatized the chain of events that led to the Islamic attacks of that terrible morning almost exactly nine years ago (a morning the Left would like us to “get over”). As I’ve written about before, and as John Ziegler’s documentary Blocking the Path to 9/11 brilliantly depicts, Democrats hallucinated that the $30+ million miniseries was a hit job on the Clinton administration, concocted by a cabal of conservative filmmakers and somehow financed by a non-profit, Christian (gasp!) relief mission.
Without having seen a frame of The Path to 9/11, Democrat pit bulls like Senators Harry Reid and Louise Slaughter went into pre-emptive attack mode to protect their legacy, claiming that the miniseries was a pack of libelous lies, and threatening to pull ABC’s license if the show aired. Meanwhile an internet-fueled smear campaign spearheaded by the unscrupulous character assassin, blogger Max Blumenthal, ramped up a mob mentality among the lonely and the impotent in the blogosphere. Ultimately, Bill Clinton himself boiled over about it in his infamous interview with Chris Wallace.
They pulled out all the stops not only to censor The Path to 9/11, but to bury it, because the Left knows how critical it is to control the “consensus history,” that “usable past” that Ann Hornaday mentioned. In the end, none of their threatened lawsuits materialized, because the miniseries was faithful to the larger truth and they knew it. But the damage had been done – the show aired only once, and it remains unavailable on DVD.
This is the third time I’ve written about Fair Game for Big Hollywood. Why bother to devote so much space to a movie that’s fated for box-office oblivion anyway? Because it’s important to call out the Left’s persistent efforts to establish their ideologically correct narrative when the historical evidence doesn’t conform to it. Facts may be stubborn things, to paraphrase John Adams, but they don’t stop the Hollywood Left from spinning a “larger truth” out of a lie.