This uses as its hat-peg an (apparent) interview with Doug Liman:
whose credits include “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” makes his first foray into fact-based drama this fall with a new film, “Fair Game” — the story of former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson; his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson; and the events of 2003, when her identity as a CIA operative was leaked after her husband wrote an op-ed criticizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
If the Valerie Plame saga was not good enough (and it certainly should be), then Hornaday notes that the Abramoff (gross sleaze) and John Edwards (private life and public lies) side-shows are also due to provide bases for films. That latter is an Aaron Sorkin vehicle, providing further scope to consider topics he has already lightly touched in The American President and The West Wing. No way, though, can even Sorkin’s sorcery change the base metal of Johnny Reid Edwards (better believe it), and his passing exchanges of bodily fluids with Lisa Jo Druck/Rielle Hunter (equally so), into the noble gold of an “Andrew Shepherd” or “Josiah Bartlet”. According to the early puffs, The Politician will be coming down the tracks around 2013, and Sorkin will not only write the screenplay (from Andrew Young’s book), but also direct.
Inevitably, with any political drama, one looks for the meeting of the factual and the fictive. Hornaday has a particular “Inside the Beltway” view:
Washington audiences charge up their BlackBerrys and prepare to truth-squad the movie’s tiniest details…
As dramatizations of Washington stories, these projects join a special subset of politically oriented movies — including “Breach,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Thirteen Days” and Stone’s “Nixon” and “W.” — that are received with a combination of relish and apprehension by local filmgoers, many of whom are likely to have witnessed the events onscreen firsthand …, political insiders see movies about true events in Washington as twofold entertainments, first in the theaters and later during the parlor game of spot-the-error (or hear-the-ax-grinding).
Ben Bradlee said or (as Woodstein has him say):
You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.
Thus, we then have Hornaday animadverting to the grand-daddy of all Washington insider movies:
“All the President’s Men,” which since its release in 1976 has held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier. Among filmmakers, “All the President’s Men” is considered the ur-text of fact-based political drama; Peter Morgan, who wrote “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” calls it “a masterpiece.”
It barely matters that the film’s most iconic piece of dialogue — “Follow the money” — was never spoken in real life. According to Bob Woodward, whose source Deep Throat utters the deathless line in the film, the quote aptly captures everything his source, FBI associate director W. Mark Felt, was telling him at the time. “It all condensed down to that,” Woodward says. Even the most scrupulously footnoted book, he adds, can’t be 100 percent accurate. “No matter how well reported or carefully done, it’s not an engineer’s drawing of what happened.”
Woodward there is very telling. First he reminds us that any account, fictional or factual, text or film, is a construct. It involves reflection, and so distortion. Then he emphasises that any successful “version” needs a focus, which must differ between an extended prose text and a film (even one running 2hr 18min).
The OED on “faction“:
A literary genre in which fictional narrative is developed from a basis of real events or characters; documentary fiction; similarly, in film-making, etc.; an instance of this.
In which context, Hornaday has had dealings with Sorkin:
Sorkin … called nonfiction drama “a tricky needle to thread” in an e-mail. “When an audience sits in a theater having been told that ‘The Following is a True Story,’ ” he said, “they should look at it the way they’d look at a painting and not a photograph. Picasso’s subjects probably didn’t have three eyes. There was no one named Falstaff in the court of Henry IV.”
… ”When you’re writing nonfiction drama, you’ve got two important things in your hands — history and somebody’s life,” he says. “So . . . first do no harm. I would never want to unfairly defame anyone (either the moral or the legal definition) and while sometimes I’m willing to conflate time, create composite characters or have a scene take place in an office when it really took place in a living room, I wouldn’t change or invent a fact that I felt fundamentally lied about something significant.”
Which seems valid enough. And even if there wasn’t a “Falstaff”, there was a Sir John Oldcastle: the clue is the broken metre of I Henry IV, when the name occurs. Clearly the two-syllables were, in the 1596 stage production, three; and equally clearly the Elizabethan audience got the reference (a barely disguised squib lobbed at Oldcastle’s descendant, William Brooke, Lord Cobham), to the extent that the epilogue to II Henry IV makes a non-apology:
Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a’ be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.
Political drama, its need to entertain and its risks have not changed that much over four hundred years.
The main event
Hornaway concludes (in the Washington Post, even a benign ramble through popular culture needs a “conclusion”):
… 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. We watch them to be entertained, surely, and maybe educated. But we keep watching them in order to remember.
More Malcolmian musing:
That reminds Malcolm of a moment from 1978. The examination board set a question on the Abdication Crisis of 1936. Suddenly all the weaker candidates were scribbling madly. Between the paper being set, and the actual date of examination, Thames Television had made a mini-series, Edward & Mrs Simpson.
At that juncture only four of the seven episodes had been transmitted. The result was anyone marking those scripts would have half a comprehensive answer appended by variations on “and so they lived happily ever after”.
Let’s move swiftly on, to what Sergio Leone called:
The only film where [John Ford] learned about something called pessimism
Hornaday’s conclusion (above) bears comparison with the punch-line of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:
[James Stewart as] Ransom Stoddart: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
[Carleton Young as] Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
A Malcolmian aside:
From 1962. An enduring morality. It took 45 years for the Library of Congress to recognise it as culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. The Bacharach-Hal David song’s not too dusty, either; but stick to the Gene Pitney version, please.
Back on track:
For most of us, for much of the time, the legends presented by visual images have become, at least partially, the fact. Should we deny Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain or, even more deservedly, Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, put on the screen by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki, their due place in the culture, and therefore as valid “histories”? After all, pretty well every concept of “nationalism”, that most potent, intoxicating and toxic of “isms”, relies on such myth-making.
Thank you, Sir Sean: don’t call us, we’ll call you.
Since films and television are inextricably involved in marketing, we are being sold (and buying) simplifications of and “improvements” on the “truth”. Hornaday, in her penultimate paragraph, implies just this:
As long as dramatists seek to make protagonists out of mere humans — to reduce their tangled webs of contradictions, complexities and banalities to a set of single-minded motivations and fatal flaws — audiences will need to approach these narratives with a blend of sophistication and skepticism.
Or else, as those kids answering that exam paper did, we may choose to wallow in the emotional impact. It’s not irrelevant, and should not be wholly absent, except in the driest, most academic histories. Not for nothing does Dickens top and tail his satire on “utilitarianism” with a symbolic opposition of Mr Gradgrind:
‘… what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’
and Mr Sleary, who lisps the last word in the debate on Thelf-interetht:
‘People mutht be amuthed. They can’t be alwayth a learning, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a working, they an’t made for it.’
The need for a narrative
One essential difference between “politics” and the history it eventually becomes is the need for a narrative. In stringing together a kaleidoscope of (often dissociated and even random) events, the writer of history seeks patterns and direction, which may not be there for the finding. Hence, a creative element is involved. A politician similarly requires a narrative thread. The current myth being spun by the UK ConDem coalition is the Great British Financial Crisis. We await the counter-narrative which must evolve and necessarily be deployed by the Labour Opposition: its particulars will be drawn from the popular mood. Neither version could claim to be more honest or “truthful” than Doug Liman’s, or Aaron Sorkin’s, or Oliver Stone’s or Peter Morgan’s glozings. And certainly, as Hornaday says, less intensely memorable.
In that spirit, then, we should continue to be amuthed and need to print the legend.