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.