Oscars: Setting the national narrative
As the Oscars approach, two of the most ambitious and remarkable Best Picture nominees — Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty — are reeling from criticisms that they are historically inaccurate. Though both are fiction, audiences, critics, commentators, scholars and even politicians are troubled that the movies don’t meet the standards of documentary or reported journalism.
The role of great works of drama, however, is to compress a larger national narrative into a clear dramatic arc. The facts are transformed, and a single event or character becomes the vehicle by which a larger truth is revealed.
The history presented in each film is about the achievement of a long-fought, hard-won goal. In Lincoln, it is the fight to pass the 13th Amendment, ending slavery; in Zero Dark Thirty, it is the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Yet, rather than focusing on the arc of events, each film tells the story by exploring the moral compromises made by an individual in thrall to larger goal. In both Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, we want the films to reflect our desired national narrative — and resist the darker implications raised in the fictionalized stories. Rather than being about moments of national achievement, each film is about the flaws of the characters who achieve the goals.
The Lincoln opening titles explain that the screenplay, by Tony Kushner, is “based in part” on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Historians have squared off on the movie’s depiction of events leading to passage of the 13th Amendment. Though the history is certainly more complex (and as the historian Eric Foner suggests, more interesting) than the movie’s scenario, the filmmakers’ focus is the story of an individual character rather than a movement.
Lincoln is portrayed as obsessed with the moral quest to end slavery. He is willing to postpone another goal—bringing an early end to the war and reuniting the severed states — to achieve it.
Kushner carves Lincoln’s fictionalized story of single purpose out of the historic record in the same way Herman Melville carved Ahab’s obsession out of the facts of the history of the S.S. Essex. Each story is transformed by the imagined psychological struggle of a character. Much as we might want Lincoln, the character, to stand in for America’s moment of national achievement and moral purpose, the character’s struggle offers a darker historical panorama. We see the political, moral and personal costs of taking a strong and partisan stance
This film has a jarring resonance today because it presents a compelling alternative political universe: A clever president uses his power and popularity to bully, cajole and even bribe a recalcitrant Congress into doing the right thing by passing an important piece of legislation. Lincoln, who has just won re-election, knows he has only a brief window to push through the amendment. He must persuade a lame-duck Congress to act before it adjourns.
The parallels to Obama’s struggle with Congress over the “fiscal cliff” are striking.
As Obama entered the White House, much was made of the fact that he had been reading A Team of Rivals. There was the expectation — or at least the hope — that he would prove the eloquent and politically savvy equivalent of Lincoln — and would engage in the passage of legislation he cared deeply about.
But even as Americans were watching Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln use his immense power to engage personally and persuasively in pushing through the amendment, Obama was disengaging from the battle over the fiscal cliff. He stepped out of his own narrative. He seemed unwilling to put his presidency on the line. Instead, he deployed as his surrogate his affable and experienced vice president, Joe Biden.
Obama was again refusing to be the protagonist in his own story. The contrast with Lincoln’s narrative of risky purposefulness could not be more striking. Lincoln’s message that one man’s power can bring about change seems, in light of the Obama presidency, almost sentimental — and unrealistic.
The film has drawn strong criticism from journalists and commentators who say its depiction of torture is an endorsement of the practice. Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, for example, asks why the “ethical drama” that was played out in the Bush White House—and which her reporting helped reveal—was not the real subject of the story. Yet, like Lincoln, this is the story of an individual’s obsessive pursuit of a goal. Maya, a young CIA officer, played by Jessica Chastain, is single-minded in her hunt for bin Laden. At first squeamish as she attends the torture sessions at a “black site” detention center, she is soon drawn into the process as her obsession becomes personal and all-consuming.
Much public debate has been focused on whether the film misrepresents the efficacy of torture. But the major question it asks is: How much is an individual willing to sacrifice for an obsessive goal?
There is no triumph in the death of bin Laden. In the film’s final scene, Maya is alone in a cavernous troop transport plane, unable to answer the question, “Where are you going?” This fictional character stands in for our national moral struggle and uncertainty after the events of 9/11. We are painfully aware of the toll that obsession has taken.
One problem shared by Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty may lie in the fact that both filmmakers ceded their ability to claim the works as fiction and deliberately confused narrative and history. In fact, the Kindle edition of Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals features Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln, on the cover rather than a picture of the 14th president. A coffee-table book is about to be released as a “Cinematic and Historical Companion” to the film.
Meanwhile, early press releases on Zero Dark Thirty claimed the story was drawn from interviews with on-site participants.
The characters of both Lincoln and Maya are dramatic flashpoints for a set of larger political issues. In the case of Lincoln, we want to be able to further identify with the protagonist’s obsession. With Maya, we want to disassociate ourselves from the protagonist’s decisions.
So eager are politicians to identify with the achievement depicted in Lincoln that there was an exclusive White House screening, and former President Bill Clinton introduced the film at the Golden Globe Awards. So desperate is the “Not on my watch” reaction to Zero Dark Thirty that a group of senators has launched an investigation to find out who in the CIA is responsible for feeding the filmmakers false information.
The response to each of these films is roiled by the implied invitation to test the fictional narrative against real events. We seem more comfortable with histories that contain their own “Hollywood endings.” All the President’s Men, for example, remains a compelling thriller, and a satisfying historical reflection of a nation’s narrative.
The real triumph of this year’s Best Picture nominees, however, may be Ben Affleck’s Argo. A true postmodern meme, it is a fictionalized account of a journalist’s account of a true story that is based on the creation of a fictitious film.
The plot revolves around a real CIA operation that managed to extract U.S. citizens during the Iran hostage crisis by having them pose as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a science fiction thriller. To make the cover story credible, the CIA hires two Hollywood filmmakers to start developing the project.
What begins as a preposterous idea — one that only Hollywood could come up with, but that the CIA did — becomes a taut thriller. It is so engaging, in fact, that the audience does not seem to care that all the action and suspense was devised for the film and not based on the actual incident – which proved relatively easy to pull off.
Yet if we acknowledge that our best understanding of ourselves is often through fiction, Argo creates, perhaps, the most believable narrative. And it is one we are willing to live with: Even misguided ideas can succeed.