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What if a new film came out about 9/11, “based on a firsthand account of actual events,” that convincingly showed no Jews were in the World Trade Center that fateful morning. The fiery disaster, in fact, was a Zionist/CIA plot to justify launching “The War on Terror”?
Or what about another film “based on true historical events,” that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim, and the drive for gun control paves the way for a jihadist takeover of America?
What about a film leaving the impression that brutal methods of torture, though perhaps morally repugnant, led to the assassination of America’s number one enemy.
The first two claims, often backed up by amateurish photos, videos and ropey documentation, have been bandied about for years on the Internet.
The film about torture, however, is a sophisticated production, turned out by the Sony Corporation and a talented director, writer and cast, backed up by reams of expensive research, nominated for five Oscars, and reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in box offices around the world.
The movie, of course, is Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT).
In a way, that film, and others like it, are hijacking our history. I’ll get back to that charge.
Some commentators like the Times’ Roger Cohen have praised ZDT “as a courageous work that is disturbing in the way that art should be.”
Indeed, as befits a work of art, much of the story-line in ZDT is unstated, diffuse. There are a lot of shadowy images, elliptical scenes, muttered exchanges. But it’s difficult to come away from the film without the perception that brutal torture, such as water boarding, played an important role in the CIA’s finding Usama Bin Laden’s personal courier, which in turn led them to the Al Qaeda leader himself.
The problem is, according to a lot of people who should know, that was not the case. The film has been roundly criticized from Human Rights Watch, to prominent American Senators, to a former agent in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, for giving Americans the erroneous impression that torture played a key role in tracking down and killing Bin Laden.
In fact, when challenged on the film’s accuracy, director Kathryn Bigelow claims a kind of artistic license—as if her critics really don’t get what her craft is all about. “What’s important to remember is it’s a movie and not a documentary…It’s a dramatization of a 10-year manhunt compressed into two-and-a-half hours…There’s a lot of composite characters and it’s an interpretation.”
O.K., just an interpretation. But Bigelow and her publicists try to have it both ways. The film’s trailer breathlessly invites us to “Witness the Biggest Manhunt in History.”
And, as the film begins, we are solemnly informed that it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.”
But, “It does not say that it is a factual, unembroidered recounting of those events,” explains Roger Cohen, sounding less like the gimlet-eyed columnist and more like attorney for the defense.
To bolster his case, Cohen quotes Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s observation that “Facts at times become the dire enemies of truth.’
“Or, put another way,” Cohen explains, “while reality is the raw material journalism attempts to render with accuracy and fairness, it is the raw material that art must transform.”
In other words, directors like Bigelow must be given the license to shape and change the facts if necessary, so that her audience can benefit from the film-maker’s memorable take on history.
That’s one argument.
But let’s go back to Amos Oz’s provocative statement that “facts at times become the dire enemies of truth.”
Isn’t it equally true that lies and distortions presented under the guise of facts also become the dire enemies of truth?
Are we really supposed to believe that the intent of the people who made this film was not to have the audience believe, one hundred percent, that, “yeah, wow, this is exactly how it went down in Pakistan.”
So much money, time, and skill were spent creating believability–in the last half hour breathlessly following the second-by-second night-vision action of the Navy Seals as they closed in for the kill.
What we were witnessing was much more immediate and “real” than what Barack Obama must have been seen from the direct CIA feed to the Oval Office when the assassination of bin Laden took place thousands of miles away.
But such story-telling skill cannot erase the fact that the film was also a gross distortion of reality. One that could make a difference: There’s a national debate about torture going on. In fact, the T-word has become so sensitive that government officials and much of the media prefer the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques”
There is no way that a powerful film like Zero Dark Thirty does not become an important part of that debate: “I know torture works, Hell, it helped us get Bin Laden. I saw the movie.”
Indeed, at one part in the film, when CIA agents are discussing the fact that the new Obama administration had given a thumbs down to torture, you couldn’t help feeling that Obama’s edict was naïve, uninformed, and would only weaken the United States.
Of course, for thousands of years playwrights, from Sophocles to Shakespeare to have done their own riffs on history. The difference is that with the increasing sophistication of the media, film makers have the ability to create the impression that what we are seeing is God-given truth.
So we swallow the lies and distortions along with the facts.
There’s just no way to tell the difference.
That point was driven home by a study done in 2009 by Andrew Butler, now at Duke, but then at the Department of Psychology of the Washington University of Saint Louis.
His researchers gave a group of about fifty students an accurate written account of an historical event to read. They also showed them an excerpt from a feature film about that same event, an excerpt that wrongly and blatantly contradicted the central fact of the printed text.
When they were later tested, 50% of the students recalled the misinformation portrayed in the film as being correct.
“This continued,” Butler reported “even when people were reminded of the potentially inaccurate nature of popular films right before viewing the film.”
Another fascinating result: “the students were highly conﬁdent of the accuracy of the misinformation” sometimes even attributing the false information from the film to the accurate text they had read.
Even when students were told that specific facts in the film were wrong, when they were tested days later, some still felt that what the vivid version the film presented was the truth.
These days, playing to box-office needs, one of the most common film-making distortions is to give Americans credit for the courage and derring-do of others.
That’s the case of Argo, which supposedly portrays the rescue of 6 American diplomats from Iran in 1979, by an intrepid CIA agent, who leads them out of Tehran disguised as members of a film production crew. The movie is like a recruiting ad for the CIA. Except for the fact that the idea for the escape, the false passports provided to the Americans, the reconnaissance of the Tehran airport etc. etc., came not from the real-life CIA character, but from plucky Canadian diplomats, led by their ambassador Ken Taylor.
Similarly in the Last Samurai (2003), America soldiers led by Tom Cruise save the day for Japan when they are brought in to train the Japanese Imperial army against a 19th century uprising. Problem is, it was the French who trained them.
Again, in the film U-571 (2000), courageous American troops retrieve the Nazi Enigma code machine by boarding a German submarine in disguise. In fact it was the British who captured the Enigma and broke the code.
Then, there’s Oliver Stone’s JFK, which, mixing documentary footage with new film, argued compellingly that a combination of sinister forces–the CIA, the Mafia, the Military industrial Complex–were behind Kennedy’s assassination.
When one “fact” after another in the film was demolished by experts, Stone retreated to “Hey, Guys …just my take on history.” His fraudulent account, however, became “truth” to tens of millions of Americans and audiences across the globe.
One of the worst exploiters of the “just-my-take-on-history genre” is Mel Gibson, whose blood-spattered portrayal of the American Revolution, “The Patriot” was judged so misleading, that the Smithsonian Institute , which had initially provided support, withdrew its backing and disowned any association.
But the problem is that, for the great majority of people on our planet, historical films “based on fact” are becoming our history books. Whether it be Mel Gibson or Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, or Karen Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, taken together they substitute tedious print with a patchwork of spellbinding tales and dramatic images—a beguiling but often distorted or completely false vision of ourselves and our past.
Should we care?
What can we do?
BARRY LANDO is a former producer for 60 Minutes who now lives in Paris. He can be reached at: Barry.Lando@wanadoo.fr