A few weeks ago the gang over in the CB Music section set out to prove that they are the most opinionated, pig-headed, disagreeable bunch on Cinema Blend when they launched a new CB feature called The Great Debate. In it, they argue and bicker with each other about hot topics. Not to be outdone, those of us on the movie side of Cinema Blend want our chance to prove we’re the much bigger malcontents than they are. Nobody argues like a bunch of stubborn, angry film fanatics. And we’re not just opinionated bastards here in Cinema Blend’s movie section, we’re dirty, rotten thieves too. So we’ve stolen CB Music’s Great Debate to do a version all our own. In the Cinema Blend movies section, The Great Debate is a cage match. Two writers enter, and… well… two writers leave but they do so having disagreed about something very strongly. Yes, there will be blood. –- CB Head Honcho Josh Tyler

In our first attempt to show up our music loving brothers, Cinema Blend film critics Scott Gwin and Brian Holcomb face off on the battlefield of history. Who wins? You decide.

TOPIC: Does historical accuracy matter when making a movie based on real events?

-- Scott Gwin
I suppose it depends on who you ask. High school teachers everywhere no doubt appreciate a little bit of accuracy, but I guess I would too if I had to read history reports from my over-stimulated students who describe Persian ruler Xerxes as bald headed, heavily pierced, effeminate guy with a voice like the alien from Stargate.

On the other hand, there has to be some room for creative license, right? You have to be able to take your movies with a grain of salt. The problem arises when you have to take a whole pound of salt to even things out because so many inaccuracies have been mixed in. If a director is going to portray actual events or actual people in a film, no matter how long ago those events occurred or how long those people have been dead, he still has a responsibility to be reasonably accurate. What would people think today if they knew that two thousand years from now someone was going to make a version of Flight 93 where aliens took over the plane and passengers used their mutant powers to valiantly crash the plane before it could be used as a weapon to destroy the Eiffel Tower?

Now, suppose the story isn’t about actual historic events or people, but is set in historic time and place. That’s a different story altogether. The Indiana Jones movies are a great example of creating fantastic fiction in the midst of non-fiction elements. The real people and events are accurately portrayed while the fictional folks get woven in seamlessly. Sure, it takes some creativity to pull that off, and granted creativity is hard to come by in Hollywood these days, but it has been done before.

I’m all for creative storytelling, but accuracy matters when real people and events are involved.

-- Brian Holcomb
Historical accuracy only matters to the point where it interferes with the better logic of good narrative storytelling. This does not mean that it’s acceptable to have fighter pilots bombing Gettsyburg in a film about the Civil War or Richard Nixon ordering the deaths of Woodward and Bernstein. What it does mean is that a movie need only be responsible to the greater truth and spirit of history rather than the letter in telling a compelling story based on real events.

History itself is an illusion of truth in any case, passed along in oral and written accounts that may or may not betray certain biases. A controversial historical film itself, Oliver Stone’s JFK features the following line of dialogue (in spectacular “Stone-Speak”): “How do you know who your daddy is? Cuz your momma told you so!” So it is with much of history, which is taken at face value until re-examined and revised whenever new evidence comes to light. Historians revise our history quite regularly, arguing that Ben Franklin was really a womanizing misogynist and that George Washington certainly never slept THERE.

Movie storytelling is based on economy and compression. Sometimes history needs to be bent in order to present a thematic truth at the heart of the story that would otherwise never be understood. In Martin Scorsese’ The Aviator, Ava Gardner is shown to be the one to come to Howard Hughes’ aid when he needs to get cleaned up and dressed for his appearance before the Senate Investigative committee. This is not documented as fact. Some say it was Cary Grant, others that it was an unknown starlet. But in John Logan’s screenplay for the film, there are only three women shown in any detail in Hughes’ life: Ava, Faith Domergue and Katherine Hepburn. Since Hepburn’s relationship with Hughes has been dramatically resolved by this point, it’s clearly the best idea to use the underdeveloped Ava Gardner character to help Hughes out. Introducing a new character like Grant or another starlet would make a sprawling cast sprawl out even further, losing the tight grip on the narrative that made The Aviator effective. We are made to understand that Hughes was vulnerable at the time, that’s the point, and we get another glimpse of the peculiar back and forth friendship between Hughes and Gardner that IS on record and remains an honest portrait. History is bent a little perhaps, but the presentation rings true.

Of course, movies based on events in our recent history such as United 93 require a firm grip on the basic facts. Since a movie based on contemporary events will be held under greater scrutiny, there must be a conscious effort to get the surface facts straight. But still, in this specific event like many others, there is only so much we really know or can verify through personal accounts. Unfortunately, since no one survived Flight 93, the film can only present the best possible version of what may have happened on that day. What we don’t know, the exact actions and dialogue of the fated passengers aboard, are of course open to artistic license based upon the information provided by those who knew them. Once again, it’s the essential truth of the overall situation that matters, not the minute details which may have become folklore.

The worst offense a movie can commit is to be boring. If being historically accurate inspires dullness than it should be the first thing on the chopping block. Besides, what kind of fool gets his history from Hollywood? If he were to do so, 300 would teach him that the Spartans fought in their underwear alongside monsters and from King Arthur that Guinevere was some kind of William Wallace warrior queen, looking quite sporty while firing flaming arrows.

The best thing a movie can hope for is to inspire the viewer to see the essential truth of a tragedy or of someone’s selfless heroism or even vileness and to read more about it on their own if so inclined. In the end, it’s meant to be an emotional experience that allows the audience to witness the events firsthand in a dramatic way that documentaries are limited from depicting. A dramatic film can put the audience right in the middle of the events and make them experience a truth far from cerebral contemplation. If we “want to know more”, we can surf the net and look up the subject on Wikipedia. We all know that everything on Wikipedia is true, right?

Does historical accuracy matter when making a movie based on real events?

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