Every year at the traditional Oscar-bait time, which we are right in the middle of, the frontrunners tend to be historical films and biopics. This makes sense for a number of reasons, in addition to the fact that a lot of the best filmmakers are also amateur historians of varying levels. The biggest is probably the simple fact that audiences love to see the drama of real life unfold. This is clear from the robust industry of documentaries and reality TV in general. We love to watch true life unfold on the screen, especially when the story is dramatic. This can lead to amazing films, but it can also have a nefarious side effect, namely bad history on the big screen.
This year there are a host of important films depicting real life events, and they all have their issues with historical veracity, some more than others. But they also cover some topics which younger viewers in particular may tend to be even less knowledgeable about than most. And if they take their history from these films, they may understand the broad strokes in the broadest of terms, but may come to believe some specifically wrong things that reflect on real people and their legacies. Trumbo, The Big Short, The Revenant, Bridge of Spies, Spotlight, Steve Jobs, The Danish Girl, Suffragette, Love and Mercy, Black Mass, and Straight Outta Compton headline the field of biopics and history flicks that will likely comprise nearly the entire nominating field. Black Mass is terrible and probably nobody saw it, so that one gets a pass. But most of the rest of the field is critically beloved and takes safe political stances that are mostly uncontroversial; nobody is seriously arguing that the House Un-American Activities Committee isn’t a dark period in American history, as in the case of Trumbo, nor that women shouldn’t have the right to vote or that the Catholic Church shouldn’t have been exposed for their complicity in the sex crimes of priests, as in the case of Suffragette and Spotlight respectively.
I don’t mean the history is “bad” because it takes a political bent when it probably shouldn’t, though that is clearly a part of filmmaking. No great artist can take their politics out of their art. I’m referring to the manufacture of simpler narrative at the expense of historical fact. No dramatization can be expected to be perfect; it would be painful to watch hours of testimony in front of the HUAC tribunals. So Trumbo does a nice job of boiling it down while showing the suffering caused by the blacklists and the Hollywood witch hunts. It also has to invent characters in order to effectively shortcut the stickiness and narratively cumbersome nature of complex relationships. Meanwhile The Revenant requires a complete mangling of history in order to make the story more compelling and to complete its arc. Steve Jobs was criticized by some of the real people it portrayed for inventing particularly dramatic interactions entirely in order to compress months of boring back-and-forths. And of course several critics have pointed out the rather forgetful nature of Straight Outta Compton which sort of skips over all the worst aspects of its main characters.
As long as we watch these films with self-awareness this is mostly harmless. But our opinions are shaped by our perceptions, which are undoubtedly influenced by dramatizations, particularly ones we like. It would be a shame if we were internalizing fictions. The Big Short, which tells the tale of the men who “shorted” (bet against) the housing market in the months leading up to the economic crash of 2007-’08, takes a novel approach, breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge shortcuts it took in historical accuracy for the sake of brevity. It however ends up only fostering a suspicion, which one can’t help but have the entire time, that the film is an even bigger con than the financial fraud that inspired it. Let’s just say lines are blurred.
Of course none of this will, nor should it, dissuade you from seeing or enjoying the fine crop of historically inspired films this year. Just remember they’re all lying to you, and any narrative dramatization, let alone documentary, is built to persuade, not to inform. In fact, probably the most historically accurate out of the bunch may be Bridge of Spies, which was coincidentally the most boring. Whereas The Revenant, which made considerable changes to the real story of Hugh Glass, is one of the best films of the year.
It’s probably just best that you remember to get your history from books, or even better, from original sources, and get your entertainment at the theaters.
By Ygal Kaufman