Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"It's Only A Movie"

 It’s about having it both ways.  You promote a movie as “Based On Actual Events”, and when you’re called on having fudged those actual events, you say, “It’s only a movie”, meaning nobody expects it to be real.

I do.  And I feel substantially ripped off when it isn’t.

You got me into the theater with the specific enticement that the movie I am about to watch is not a made-up story.  Then, later, you say, “Well, some of it is.”  To me, this is just sleazy.  Try that in any other business, and it’s a prison, or a hefty fine.

“Beef hotdog.”

All beef?”

“Well, you know…quite a bit of it.”

You lied to me. 

Well, comes the standard excuse, it’s a movie, not documentary reality.  (By which, I assume, they do not mean a Michael Moore documentary, because a lot of that’s made up too.  In fact, all documentaries are subjectively slanted, but that’s for another post, or maybe not, as, by asserting “all documentaries are subjectively slanted”, I may have revealed all I have to say on the matter.)

At least, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid was up front about things.  The first title card in a movie concerning actual people and events read:  “Most of What Follows Is True.”  I never saw anything like that in any other movie.  Certainly, dramas based on “Actual Events” offer no such disclaimers.

The question is, “Are they misleading us if they don’t?” 

Well, let’s see.


Wait.  A moment to explain why…wait.  I’ll do it this way.  Theoretically – and this generally turns out to be the case – movies based on actual events are more compelling than movies with fabricated storylines.  Why?  Because of this:

“The characters whose story you are watching represent flesh-and-blood people, and these things actually happened to them.  Nothing happened to James Bond.  The guy’s fun to watch, and it’s an enjoyable ride.  But James Bond is entirely made up.”

Therein lies the distinction that makes the difference.  Anne Frank – real person.  Hence, the visceral difference when she hid, and they caught her, and she died.  The Diary of Fran Hanks?  Same story, but she’s not a real person?  It’s not the same.  (Side Note Relative To Partially True Storytelling:  Imagine how ripped off you’d feel if you found out that, though the movie had depicted her dying in the camps, Anne Frank actually lived.)

Okay, Argo.   

Argo fudged the facts of six American diplomats’ daring escape from Iran in 1979.  Aside from compressing events for time purposes – which, unless you want a three-month-long movie, there is nothing you can do about that – Argo also exaggerates certain moments – most significantly, the events surrounding the final airport departure – for dramatic effect.

To this, I say…

“So what?”

You’re fugitive American diplomats, and they’re sneaking you out of Iran, masquerading as a Canadian film crew.  You think that wasn’t tense in real life?  What did Argo do?  It made “tense” tenser for dramatic effect.  We’re not talking fabricated tension.

“Hi.  We’re American diplomats.  And we’re leaving with falsified Canadian passports.  Okay?”

“Sure.  Have a nice trip.  And come back to Iran real soon.”

That didn’t happen.  The movie took what did happen, and they dramatized its suspensefulness.

As my favorite basketball announcer Chick Hearn used to say:

No harm; no foul.

Moving on…

Zero Dark Thirty

Is a movie about the painstaking efforts to find and “take out” Osama Bin Laden.  Was Osama Bin Laden, in reality, found and “taken out”?  Yes, he was.

Okay, then.  So far, so good.

What got the movie in trouble is that it implied that information resulting from the “Enhanced Interrogation Technique” known as torture contributed, at least in part, to the tracking down and killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Our government, on the other hand, insists that that is not how it happened. 

That’s a big difference.  “Information resulting from torture contributed to the ultimately successful operation.”  “No it didn’t.”  If the first statement is correct, it makes a persuasive case for torture.  If the second statement is correct, then the movie told a big fib. 

A fib, which, for dramatic effect, justifies torture.

The filmmakers claim that their movie leaves the issue ambiguous.  “Ambiguous” means it’s not clear.  Opinions differ on the subject, is the filmmakers’ view, and the movie is simply being honest about that.

To me, this is not “ambiguous.”  “Ambiguous” is, they emerge from the interrogation room with the desired information, leaving it unclear whether torture got them the information.  That’s ambiguous. 

Showing the torture, and emerging with the desired information?  That’s stacking the deck.  It really looks like it worked.

“I stuck a fork in his eye.”

“Did you kill him?”

“Well, he’s dead.  But it’s kind of ambiguous.”

It seems important, both morally and practically, to know whether torture works.  If the movie sidesteps that issue while showing scenes of torture that may or may not have been helpful, it looks like they’re showing torture just to show torture.  (And then labeling it “ambiguous.”) 

“And besides…”

It’s only a movie?


Sorry.  Not good enough.

Tomorrow, two more examples, the transgression in one of which really bothers me. 

Most troublingly because it’s in a movie I really enjoyed.

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