Bombast: True Enough
“There’s the story of the old Irish biddy, to whom the neighbors came for a coffee klatch and said, ‘Is this story true about the young widow up the street?’ She said, ‘It’s not true, but it’s true enough.’ I used this in my classes and told them that the historian has to proceed with the reverse of this. There are a lot of things in history that are true, but they are not true enough.”
—John Lukacs, Winston Churchill’s Evolving Views of Russia, 1917-1953, Reconsidered
The Grand Budapest Hotel
We are midway through that Bataan death march known as “awards season,” which begins with a disproportionate number of prestige pictures flooding the market at the end of year. Because most of these will be period pieces, many based on True Stories, an undue amount of movie chat in turn has lately been devoted to the ethics of representing history on screen. Of the current Best Picture crop, we have films set during the prewar, wartime, and postwar of an invented Mitteleuropean nation (The Grand Budapest Hotel), in England during and after World War Two (The Imitation Game), in Cambridge and its environs in the Sixties (The Theory of Everything), segregated Alabama in 1965 (Selma), and at home and on battlefields during the recent Iraq-Afghanistan Wars (American Sniper). (This is not to speak of the various un-nominated period pieces that were clearly made with some idea of being awards contenders, like Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and Tim Burton’s Big Eyes.)
Of the above nominees, only Budapest doesn’t use the figures of real men and women who lived through the events depicted, setting its scene in the Republic of Zubrowka, a stand-in for any of the eminently civilized Central European nations that would descend into the twin barbarisms of fascism and communism during the 20th century—like the real Budapest from which John Lukacs fled in 1946. As such, it escapes certain of the criticisms that the other films have been subjected to—such as the “expert” op-ed, in which the facts as given (or elided) by the movie are scrupulously compared to the known historical facts, and as often as not found wanting. This is, of course, because most filmmaking is, to borrow from Lukacs, closer to the providence of the Irish biddy—it deals in the true enough, not the strictly true. At the same time that Anderson, by putting his film at a slight remove from the actual World War II, avoids one point of vulnerability to criticism—one can’t very well recruit a Ph.D. who wrote his dissertation on the Republic of Zubrowka to fact-check The Grand Budapest Hotel—he opens himself to another front of attack. Namely: he’s set himself up at a comfortable remove! He’s made a movie about the idea of World War II, as learned from The World of Yesterday and Ernst Lubitsch films, all while keeping himself immaculate and aloof, as not to get any blood splatter on his crushed-velvet blazer.
Nevertheless one has a feeling that Anderson, by leaving no room to doubt that he’s employing fictional license, has taken the path of less resistance. Fact-checking as a dedicated occupation has almost entirely disappeared from journalism, instead added to the responsibilities of overworked writers who are expected to do their own Googling on their own time, but the Fifth Estate has, at no extra charge, offered its services in this capacity to the entertainment industry. As I have not seen either The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything, and have no intention to do so, I won’t comment on their individual cases, though a few keystrokes pulls up items like a Slate piece asking “How Accurate Is The Imitation Game?” and an ongoing Entertainment Weekly column called “Fact-Checking the Film.” The New York Times is also on the case, having run a piece on the subject this week (“When Films and Facts Collide in Questions”) which contains a juicy quote from Jeanine Basinger: “It makes you crazy when you confront, year after year, the fact that no one understands either the movies or history. We’re trying to hold movies to a truth we can’t hold history to. History is always someone’s opinion.” Basinger is the former chair of the film studies program at Wesleyan University, and author of a fine volume on Anthony Mann, whose 1949 pulp history of the French Revolution, Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book), if released today, just might not pass muster with eggheads.
The Imitation Game
Whatever their relative fidelity or lack thereof to the True Stories they purport to tell, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are marketed with their take on subject matters not likely to be controversial with the genteel, soft art-house audiences to whom they are addressed—the treatment of homosexuals in Fifties Britain and something to do with the intellect and ineradicable dignity of Stephen Hawking, from what I can gather. This leaves us with the two movies stalking bigger game, both cited in a piece by Jake Coyle for the Associated Press: “From Selma to American Sniper, artistic license gets an audit in Hollywood’s awards season.”
The first sets its scene during one of the most important actions of the American civil-rights movement; the second during post–September 11 military operations in the Middle East, depicted not infrequently in American pictures, though rarely with the sort of box-office success that has thus far been enjoyed by Clint Eastwood’s film. (Pundits seem to have forgotten the impressive January take of Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor last year, which is understandable, as said movie is shoddily made, risible trash.) Both have been accused of playing fast and loose with history by a media which has gotten very Joe Friday in its demands on filmmakers, asking for just the facts. The likes of former Johnson presidential aide Joseph A. Califano Jr. and Maureen Dowd have tut-tutted at Selma director Ava DuVernay for her film’s “distortion” of LBJ’s record on race. American Sniper and Eastwood went undetected while this was going on, but a breakout wide-release opening weekend and a slew of nominations announced the film’s presence, and it has since taken flak for whitewashing its subject, Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL believed to be the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.
The movie is based on Kyle’s 2012 autobiography of the same title, written with Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwen, which was optioned months after its publication by Bradley Cooper, who would eventually star as Kyle. In the interim before American Sniper arrived on screens, Steven Spielberg would be attached as director, then withdraw, and Kyle would be killed by a fellow veteran and PTSD sufferer whom he was taking out on a shooting trip, part of volunteer work that he began after the end of his service. In his brief period of celebrity between the best-seller list and the grave, Kyle was also revealed to be something of a serial fabulist: he claimed to have knocked down former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura while defending the honor of the SEALs in a Colorado bar brawl (he did not), to have picked off 30 or more armed looters from atop the New Orleans Superdome in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (he almost certainly did not), and to have killed two carjackers outside of Dallas (ditto).
Eastwood’s American Sniper makes no mention of Kyle’s Munchausen-esque postwar embellishments of his supersoldier legacy, braggadocio which would run counter to the film’s depiction of Kyle as a modest, tight-lipped protector of the vulnerable. Nevertheless, we may suppose that the real Kyle’s foot-in-mouth loquaciousness (often, it seems, accompanied by binge drinking) and the screen Kyle’s noble taciturnity had the same source—a profound psychic damage—and the fact of this damage is more important to Eastwood’s American Sniper than what Werner Herzog once called “superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” Eastwood shows men in war and their actions, and contrasts these images with Kyle’s insistence of his own clear conscience. Eastwood’s mistake is to trust a viewer to sort through contradictory evidence on their own—for some people, a movie cannot be sufficiently antiwar unless it ends with a fatigue-wearing, tear-streaked Matt Damon wailing “Why did Bush do 9/11?”*
It is discomfiting and a little embarrassing to have to actually examine one’s feelings about the martial tradition and the warrior caste, and so many responses to American Sniper have broken down along knee-jerk political lines. On one side there is “America, Fuck Yeah” boosterism occasionally shading into outright racism, as in a much-circulated screenshot of four tweets offering what re-posters apparently believe to be damning evidence that, yes, four of the film’s millions of viewers were xenophobic trash. On the other, there’s a curious focus on the handful of shots in the movie in which Cooper is seen dandling a newborn baby that is, upon closer scrutiny, actually a rubber doll. You can either take the rubber baby, apparently brought in after two real infants had failed to work out, as Eastwood’s reasonable and efficient no-BS response to on-set exigency, or take it as a “tell” that reveals his directorial indifference and the fallacy of the entire project. Similarly, you can either admire Eastwood’s ingenuity in taking the director’s chair on American Sniper, which was going to be made one way or another and might easily have been made very badly, and crafting a film which encourages a viewer to think deeply about the cultural roots and inculcation of gun love in America via a property that does not necessarily speak to these matters; or you can deride him for making the movie at all. Generally speaking, I prefer to limit myself to discussing the films that have been made rather than discussing the ones that haven’t.
Through no fault of either American Sniper or Selma, there is a developing sense of these movies as “counterprogrammed” works—Sniper for the Red States and Selma for the Blue—facing off in a clickbait Battle Royale. (“American Sniper vs. Selma: Hollywood Takes Sides, Aim” squawks a Thompson on Hollywood headline, obligingly.) Both films world-premiered back-to-back at AFI Fest, had limited-release award-qualifying runs starting on Christmas Day, and opened wide in January. This month, the perception of a face-off ramped up when DuVernay wasn’t nominated for a DGA award while Eastwood was (as were Wes Anderson and someone called—I’m not kidding—Morten Tyldum), while Bradley Cooper edged out David Oyelowo, DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr., in the all-white acting categories.
The irony here is that American Sniper and Selma have more than a little in common, and not only the fact that their real-life subjects were both victims of gun violence. (One, it should be emphasized, dealt out more than his fair share.) Both films, for example, end with the integration of stock footage into their fictional narratives: American Sniper with Chris Kyle’s 200-mile funeral procession from Midlothian to Austin and the laying-in-state of his catafalque on the 50-yard line of Cowboys Stadium; Selma with Dr. King leading a procession across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin their march to the state capitol at Montgomery. These shouldn’t be taken as instances of filmmakers trying to slyly conflate their fictions with fact, but rather as deliberate confrontations between myth and documentary record. Both films examine the cost of inhabiting a legend—incidentally, “Legend” was Kyle’s battlefield nickname—and the private toll incurred by public men. Selma takes place largely in the realm of political negotiation made urgent by the threat of violence, while American Sniper takes place amidst what Carl von Clausewitz called “the continuation of politics by other means,” but Eastwood’s and DuVernay’s films are both acutely aware of the part that storytelling plays in real life, so-called. In depicting the civil-rights movement, Selma devotes a great deal of screen time to scenes of stage management, from the vital function of Dr. King’s narrative-shaping oratory to the manner in which he and his cohort apply themselves to broadcasting a compelling image of the oppression of the black Southerner to the wider world. Eastwood and DuVernay have even shared a “character,” that of J. Edgar Hoover, played by Dylan Baker in Selma, and by Leonardo DiCaprio in Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar, which begins with the FBI Director preparing to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr.’s hotel room while confronting a challenge from his new supervisor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Selma and J. Edgar are both films which deal in the manufacture of images for the public eye, which is another way of saying that they are interested in the basic currency of political power. In the case of DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr., the cause is a just one pursued by a flawed man, while Eastwood’s Hoover is a character whose early idealism is poisoned by a distrust of self which, through the years, he increasingly externalizes into a universal paranoia. (In Selma, Hoover is employed to create a counter-image of Dr. King that will undermine his appearance of righteousness by accruing evidence of his infidelities—this is the point at which J. Edgar begins.) The responsibilities and snares that come with the spotlight are among Eastwood’s abiding interests through his 40-plus-year career as a director, and the theme carries through films concerning a smoothie DJ’s seductive on-air persona blowing up in his face (1971’s Play Misty for Me), a paean to fake-it-so-real cowboys-and-Indians playacting (1980’s Bronco Billy), two stories detailing the perils of living one’s music (1982’s Honkytonk Man and 1988’s Bird), a backstage/safari drama following John Huston into the bush (1990’s White Hunter Black Heart), a Bostonian scribbler’s skimming the Wild West for larger-than-life subjects (1992’s Unforgiven), the demythologization of national propaganda on both sides of WWII’s Pacific Theater (2006’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), nation-building through spectator sports (2009’s Invictus), and the “just too good to be true” business of pop treacle (2014’s Jersey Boys).
It is not so easy to contextualize Selma in DuVernay’s career, for she has much less career to look at. She is now 42 and on her third film—exactly Eastwood’s age when he made his number three, 1973’s rather lovely Breezy. Even if the picture industry didn’t not-so-secretly scorn blacks, women, and especially black women—and of course it totally does—it would be difficult to imagine her or anyone starting out today matching Eastwood’s longevity and prolificacy, though I’d be fascinated to see what she’d do given the chance to take as many shots as he has. As it stands, Selma strikes me as a work of considerable aesthetic and moral force, though hamstrung by glaring flaws in casting. In fact, it does have an LBJ problem, and that problem’s name is Tom Wilkinson, who plays the 36th President of the United States. I never thought I’d be nostalgic for Liev Schreiber’s President Johnson, seen playing statesman from the toilet in 2013’s The Butler (a scene which the fact-checking Daily Beast determined “COULD BE TRUE”), but Wilkinson’s jowl-shaking very nearly did it. It is one thing to finesse the official records on Johnson’s attitudes in the months leading up to his signing of the Voting Rights Act in service of a larger truth—that black self-determination was achieved by independent black organization, in large part through black and (some) white church groups, and outside the official avenues of foot-dragging politics-as-usual. It is another thing to render the man who was known to casually refer to his “bunghole” while ordering slacks so unforgivably colorless.
Handling a Texas accent like a slippery brown trout, Wilkinson is one of a plethora of U.K. actors in a film which speaks to the best and worst in American history, including Oyelowo—judging from such fare as Jack Reacher and A Most Violent Year, I’d dismissed Oyelowo as a vocationally bad actor, though he is unaccountably fine here—Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, and Tim Roth as Governor George Wallace, giving a career-worst performance. Across racial lines, Selma’s Anglicization of the South is indicative of a current tendency to overvalue Commonwealth-bred thespians, but while a few anecdotal examples might make for a snappy trend piece (Buzzfeed’s “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America”), it’s probably far too early to discuss the endangerment of the black American actor when Kevin Hart’s The Wedding Ringer is handily dusting Selma at the multiplexes. Whatever the case, I’m sure there will be roles enough for diaspora actors the world over whenever the studios should choose to bankroll an Africa-set historical epic.
Exodus: Gods and Kings