Jack Garner talks truth in film
10:11 AM, Jan 30, 2013
Two of the season’s most prominent films are based on history, and both Zero Dark Thirty and, to a lesser extent, Lincoln have been taking a few hits, on the question of how factual they may or may not be. These objections usually are based on fact-checking, and don’t relate to the undeniable high cinematic quality of the films.
I’m here to defend the films.
First up: Zero Dark Thirty, which is Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful, Oscar-nominated film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Most of the criticism involves the depictions of torture early in the film, and the implication that torture revealed information that helped lead to bin Laden. Some lesser criticism has surfaced about the exactitude of the actual raid that makes up the last section of the film, and how the detail was obtained.
Zero Dark Thirty has been criticized from the right and the left, which may indicate it’s doing something right. From the right comes concerns that screenwriter Mark Boal got more information than he should have been able to get from America’s covert operators. From the left comes concern that the film endorses torture.
Some prominent legislators have denied the importance or even use of torture depicted in Bigelow’s film. We must always consider the sources of people commenting on films. Of course, those national legislators will deny the use and importance of torture by U.S. authorities. However, I personally believe Bigelow and her writer more than I believe those politicians. (Plus, have we all so quickly forgotten the photos out of Abu Ghraib?)
Then, from the left including from some of the more prominent liberal actors in Hollywood like Ed Asner and Martin Sheen comes the complaint that Zero Dark Thirty endorses the use of torture. However, it is clear to me that Bigelow’s film does not endorse torture, only tell of it. They’re trying to slay the messenger.
Opinions about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are in no way as negative or volatile as the controversy swirling around Zero Dark Thirty. However, a few historians have argued that the film depicts the fight for the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery in the United States) as virtually a one-man battle by Lincoln, and downplays the role of various abolitionists. Personally, I thought the character of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) made the role of abolitionists fairly prominent and important.
A few viewers may also wonder about the president’s relatively high tenor voice, when actors over the decades have more typically provided Lincoln with the powerful deep voice of an Old Testament prophet. In truth, historians have written that Lincoln did have a fairly high and reedy voice, just the sort Daniel Day-Lewis provides.
As for Lincoln, no less an authority than Doris Kearns Goodwin endorses the film, and since she wrote the greatest Lincoln book of the modern age (A Team of Rivals), I choose to believe her.
Finally, as a reader and film-watcher, I espouse the theory brought forth by esteemed Vietnam chronicler Tim O’Brien, the author of The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato. He has written what I believe is a most eloquent defense of dramatic license in storytelling. He’s far more interested in truth than in facts. I know what he means, and I agree.
As he writes, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth … It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”
“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” Writing about the storyteller, O’Brien writes “It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite; he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.”
NEXT TO NORMAL. Talk about telling a story to get at the truth, Geva is currently staging a remarkable production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal.
Created by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the show takes on an incredible challenge of portraying a troubled family whose dysfunction stems from the mental illness of the wife/mother. The result is powerful and emotional, of course, but also exuberant, funny and exciting, one of the most ingratiating musicals of the modern age. And the cast and staging are first-rate.
Congrats to Geva for establishing the sharing relationship with Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, where this production was originated. Next to Normal runs through Feb. 10.