Forget Historical Accuracy When You’re Watching the Oscars

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To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard: every film is a documentary of its actors. That’s it. That’s the only verity you get in cinema. The Imitation Game, then, is a documentary of Benedict Cumberbatch playing a fictional version of Alan Turing. It is not a documentary about Alan Turing. And The Theory of Everything is a documentary of Eddie Redmayne twisting his body in order to look like Stephen Hawking. It is not, in case it isn’t obvious, a documentary about Stephen Hawking.

“At what point,” Francine Prose wrote recently, “did we start expecting films to tell the truth about the past? And won’t we be in trouble if we do?” Prose goes on to describe the wild historical inaccuracies of films from her childhood in order to cite what she learned from the great Hollywood cinema of her youth:

…From these films, I learned that there had been wars fought in distant lands and that they were known as “the Crusades”; that there had been a king named Richard the Lionheart who had been detained in “the Orient” and that his brother, the evil King John, had attempted to usurp his throne; that monks like jolly Friar Tuck wore robes and tonsures; that bows and arrows were the military weapons of choice; and that knights spent all their time competing in equestrian tournaments and rescuing damsels in distress.

She did not learn much, in other words, and what she did learn was often wrong. Still, the films she saw as a child are revered as classics.

When it comes to long-term critical consensus in cinema, you don’t get extra points for being a good student, for sticking to the historical record. Why? Because cinema isn’t reality; it isn’t possible to literally recreate the past on screen. The best you can do is give material impressions, through tricks really, of another time and place. But even this does not guarantee even a slightly affecting or useful narrative feature. And, in any case, you’d have to be somewhat delusional, or at least radically out of touch with how the discipline of history is performed — intersubjectively, through critical debate over various sources — to believe that films can do more than give the illusion of history recreated.

But Hollywood is radically delusional and racist. It is delusional enough about historical representation to allow a film like Selma to be pushed out of the nominee pool in certain categories and awards contention in others because of claims of historical inaccuracy. The qualm with Selma (apparently) is the depiction of the political partnership between LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr. An old white man (who also happens to have been an assistant to Johnson) has complained that the film shows LBJ as insufficiently jazzed about the Voting Rights Act, as if the film is an archival documentary of 36th POTUS, as if politicians don’t tactically bob and weave to assuage party members, opponents, and the electorate.

Even if they exist, the inaccuracies in Selma pale in comparison to those in The Imitation Game, which are so outrageous and numerous as to court hilarity, if they weren’t so sad. Christian Caryl, writing for the New York Review of Books, points out that the filmmakers not only manage to turn Turing into a traitor, but they also muddle the circumstances behind his death — he may well have been murdered! — and, by way of a ridiculous and historically false conceit wherein Turing names his computer after his first love, render him pitiful. Caryl writes:

As near as I can tell, there is no basis for any of this in the historical record; it’s monstrous hogwash, a conceit entirely cooked up by Moore. The real Turing certainly paid periodic and dignified respects to the memory of his first love, Christopher Morcom, but I doubt very much that he ever confused his computers with people. In perhaps the most bitter irony of all, the filmmakers have managed to transform the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love to hate.

It’s important to point out that Caryl is not a simpleton: he simply wants the filmmakers to “embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience.” He’s not seeking a perfectly faithful recreation of the historical record but a correct impression of Turing’s character. But that’s not what’s on offer in The Imitation Game. The filmmakers, in this case, veer crazily away from offering an impression of what made Turing interesting in the first place.

In the case of Selma, the opposite is true: the impression is there. And you don’t have to take a critic’s word for it. Gay Talese can verify that Selma gives a correct impression because he was there:

I’m a reporter – back then I was a New York Times reporter – and we care a lot about factual accuracy. We do not appreciate the imagination. It has to be right – or it has to be as right as it can be – and my feeling was, at the time, ‘Hollywood is not going to do well by this story,’ in terms of the verifiable truth. And so I sat through the first five minutes and I thought, ‘Well, this is terrific so far, but it’s not going to go on. She’s going to screw it up sooner or later.’ And then I came to the end of that fabulous film and I thought, ‘God, she got it! How did she do it?'”

Of course, the debate surrounding Selma’s historical accuracy is, as Jason Bailey has pointed out, more about politics and Academy votes than anything else. But the entire scheme relies on the gullibility of Academy voters and audiences who still believe historical accuracy determines a film’s long-term value. And if the Hollywood-Oscars publicity complex can’t get you on historical faithfulness, maybe they can get you on casual racism instead.