Can we trust film directors to tell the truth about the past? If “Belle” and “The Imitation Game” are any guide, the answer has to be no. And now along comes “Selma”. In The New York Review of Books Elizabeth Drew addresses an alarming trend:
Some embellishments are harmless, especially when there’s no history to contradict… In “The Queen”, it doesn’t matter that it’s most unlikely, and certainly unknowable, that Elizabeth II, who had underestimated the degree of her subjects’ grief over the death of Princess Diana, upon seeing a beautiful stag about to be shot by hunters, shed a tear because it put her in mind (a stag?) of the tragic young woman. That’s acceptable “artistic licence,” since it doesn’t change the story.
But then there are elaborations that do change the story and mislead in serious ways. Both the play and the movie “Frost/Nixon” base the plot on a historical falsehood: Nixon agonizingly utters a confession he didn’t make; in fact it turns what he actually said on its head by leaving out some crucial words More recently, as Christian Caryl has pointed out, in “The Imitation Game” so many liberties are taken with what the figure Alan Turing was like, and so many historical facts are distorted, as to present a real question of the movie’s legitimacy.
[…] A film critic for The Washington Post argued that we should simply get used to the idea that films pretending to represent history are going to contain falsities—and that we can then discuss why the director made these choices. But how are we to know? Is every kid who’s misled by “Selma” going to take a seminar on it? Our history belongs to all of us, and major events shouldn’t be the playthings of moviemakers to boost their box-office earnings.
Drew’s earlier article on Frost/Nixon is worth reading too.