Why do movies based on known historical facts make for such riveting viewing?
While hoping for the best in “unluckily” numbered 2013, we do know the number’s more fortunate history, as immortalised in the movies: that Lincoln’s 13th Amendment was passed, or that Apollo 13 did make it back to earth. Or that, close enough to the number 13, at round 30 minutes after midnight, the Yanks did eventually get Osama.
The latter film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was more slow-burn rather than rapid-fire thriller but it had me gripped. Still, it seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it, that movies based on known historical facts make for such riveting tales.
When you know the answers, what keeps you at the edge of your seat?
One answer is that sometimes, the process is almost more fascinating than the end result. I know, that sounds like a line out of a contemporary art textbook, and I can almost hear former art teachers applauding the sentiment.
Certainly, in the film about the hunt for Osama, its real story lies in the procedural rather than the known outcome. Which has raised many talking points, not least, the troublingly graphic depictions of torture. Before shouting allegations of torture porn, though, it’s worth remembering Bigelow’s comment: “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement”.
Still, the movie left me feeling decidedly queasy about the whole relationship between means and ends. But perhaps that was partly what the director wanted us to experience, rather than a mere reiteration of Osama’s eventual demise.
The other history-making moment big in the cinemas right now is the tightly focussed drama about how Lincoln got slavery abolished — and how Daniel Day-Lewis made history by winning his third Best Actor Oscar.
Steven Spielberg’s artistry is two-fold: he got our attention by dramatising the President’s moral choices, then he made us sweat along with the President’s men in the countdown to getting the requisite votes to pass the Amendment.
Using turning points in history as movie plots inevitably generates a lot of quibbling about accuracy. But here’s the key point: these films are dramatisations rather than documentaries or history lessons.
Sure, movies stick in our brains, so there’s justification in asking for historical facts not to be completely inverted in the service of creative filmic license. Allowing, always, some room for revisionist histories though few perhaps have been as outré as the sublimely titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
But truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, as Ben Affleck demonstrated so effectively by carrying home this year’s Best Picture Oscar. A deserved win for Argo, the story of the 1980 CIA-Canadian secret operation that extracted six American Embassy workers out of revolutionary Iran, under the cover of filming a Hollywood pic.
Moments in history are picked for celluloid conversions precisely because they are memorable. But no matter how intense the event was at the time, Time, is the great, memory-loss-inducing, leveller.
Argo worked so well, in part, because most viewers genuinely couldn’t remember the historical incident; and even for those who did, the facts were hazy, and details classified at the time.
Wartime stories of bravery and courage often get buried beneath the horror and carnage, till they are excavated by writers and historians; then movies are a great vehicle for bringing to the public attention such historical episodes.
Most famously, there’s Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; or along similar lines, Hotel Rwanda, where a hotel manager saved over 1000 Tutsi refugees in their struggle against the Hutu militia. Or there’s the compelling Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, about the extraordinarily brave German anti-Nazi activist - based almost entirely on actual manuscripts of her interrogation.
Historical transcripts carry the weight of authenticity – as also seen in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, which recreated Frost’s landmark 1977 interviews with Nixon. The focus is narrow but the retelling is startling – the film was a reminder of the honesty of those interviews, and there was a tangible sense of discovery; as a bonus we were offered the posturing and power play behind the scenes.
But it’s not just war and scandal, private events of public figures can get elided out of history. It remains for filmmakers remind us, as in The King’s Speech set during the time of King George VI’s unexpected ascension to the British throne. The small tale of the monarch’s speech impediment, and the speech therapist who helped him get over the handicap, turned out to be a delightful crowd-pleaser.
It feels good to be a fly on the wall of unfolding history, even if we know what’s coming next. Sometimes there are new discoveries, sometimes there is the satisfaction of seeing a much-loved event retold, and sometimes it’s just that the director knows which buttons to press. Go figure how Cameron persuaded so many people to sign on for a voyage aboard a cruise liner, when they knew from the very beginning that the Titanic would sink.