Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and the challenges of capturing history on film

Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and the challenges of capturing history on film

The HBO movie Game Change comes out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, which, coupled with Julianne Moore’s potential Golden Globes win next week for her performance as Sarah Palin, is bound to spark some fresh discussion about how well the film depicts the 2008 presidential election, and how fair it is to Palin and the entire John McCain campaign. It’s a topic that just about anyone who was following the news in ’08 can have an opinion on, since the ins and outs of the McCain team’s strategy was scrutinized by the press, both during and immediately after the election. In fact, that’s one of the biggest knocks against Game Change, that it doesn’t do much more than dramatize yesterday’s headlines. This is the kind of story that might’ve been better if it were adapted 10 years from now, or even 20, when the filmmakers could’ve brought more perspective.

On the other hand, maybe it’s the reaction to Game Change that should cool on the shelf for a bit. Maybe Game Change, like history itself, can’t be properly judged until a little more time passes. There’s value in considering history from a distance, but there’s also something to be said for artists recording a significant historical moment fairly close to when it happens, for posterity’s sake. True, it’s difficult to see the bigger picture up close, but preserving the immediate, narrow response can be important, too.

Besides, even when they’re dramatizing the events of 150 years ago, filmmakers frequently end up documenting their own times just as strongly. It’s a variation on the old Star Trek effect, where the future looked uncannily like the mid-1960s. Historical dramas too often reveal the biases of when they were made.

Lincoln is a case in point. The story of Abraham Lincoln’s life has been told on film multiple times, with multiple focuses. Though this new Lincoln is primarily about the passage of the amendment that abolished slavery, writer Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg wedge in scenes involving the president’s melancholic wife, and about the son that the First Couple blocked from serving in the military. There’s a distractingly modern quality to those parts of the movie; they’re history as understood by early-21st-century dramatists, who have a conception of marriage and father-son dynamics that feels more informed by melodrama than the historical record.

That said, Lincoln’s modern feel is also one of its main selling points—especially when it comes to the way President Lincoln himself is depicted. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln isn’t some remote, tragic figure; he tells jokes, spins stories, argues amiably, and inspires affection. There are echoes of today in the way the Lincoln administration wrangles votes and appeases coalitions, willing to make small concessions in anticipation of the greater good of abolition. And it’s certainly not coincidental that Lincoln’s impassioned debates over human rights reflect recent fights over gay marriage. But the major appeal of Lincoln is how it appears to conjure the actual Oval Office and the actual floor of the House of Representatives, letting the audience see them fairly close to how they were, circa 1865.

That’s a lot of the appeal of Zero Dark Thirty, too. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s look back at the decade-long process of finding and executing Osama bin Laden is both a gripping action movie and a rich character study, which presents the illusion of documentary reality. Zero Dark Thirty is unflinching in its violence, and exciting in the way it takes the audience behind closed doors with powerful people, assuming that viewers will be able to keep up with who’s who and what’s what.

This has also been the source of a lot of the arguments surrounding Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow and Boal composited, consolidated, and modified the real story of the hunt for Bin Laden, and some have taken issue with their dramatic choices—in particular the apparent suggestion that the name of one of the people who led the CIA to Bin Laden was acquired during an “enhanced interrogation” session. Others have insisted that Zero Dark Thirty implies exactly the opposite: that the CIA’s torture policy wasted valuable time, and hollowed out the people responsible for executing the program. Frankly, no matter what Bigelow and Boal themselves have said about their intentions since the controversy began, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t seem expressly concerned with condoning or decrying torture. Instead, it’s more matter-of-fact: Torture happened, information was gathered, time passed, and then a different approach led to finding Bin Laden.

But whether Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture or not, its chain of events would still be controversial, because if in fact the enhanced interrogation program did not yield that key name—and all the publicly available information indicates that it didn’t—then the movie is promoting a lie that could lead to more people believing torture to be both effective and necessary. Movies have that power to encode myths. And “historical” movies are even more empowered, because they can persuade millions with a slanted version of a true story.

It’s awfully hard to predict what effect Zero Dark Thirty will have on future U.S. foreign policy or public opinion. It’s disingenuous to insist that movies and TV shows have no effect on how people perceive the world, but it’s also arrogant to presume exactly how people process entertainment, unless those people state outright how their opinions were shaped. The legacy of Zero Dark Thirty most likely won’t lie in changing voters and lawmakers’ minds about torture—especially given the diversity of opinion about what the movie itself is saying—but rather in convincing people that the killing of Bin Laden went down exactly like the white-knuckle action of a Hollywood blockbuster. 

Part of what’s exciting about Zero Dark Thirty—and what’ll keep people watching it for decades hence—is how it uses that grammar of the Hollywood blockbuster to tell a story of serious historical import. There’s an artfulness to that tension between the pumped-up and the forensic. It’s similar to the way that major filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma approached the Vietnam War during the era of the big Vietnam movie. They made their kind of films, commenting on the war and the ’60s without abandoning their own styles. Bigelow is known for her detailed, character-driven thrillers, which is exactly what Zero Dark Thirty is. The main difference between Bigelow’s Bin Laden movie and the Vietnam movies of Kubrick, Coppola, and De Palma is that she’s dealing with a subject that’s much fresher. (Though, to be fair, Coppola had been developing Apocalypse Now since a time when the Vietnam War was still raging.) Given how popular Zero Dark Thirty is likely to be, it’s going to be fascinating in the years to come to see how this one major early-21st-century event becomes defined in the culture by Bigelow’s personal take.

Similarly, what’s ultimately remarkable about Game Change isn’t what it reveals about the troubled relationship between Palin and the McCain staff—which is information better-gleaned from Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s bestselling book of the same name—but rather what it reveals about HBO films, director Jay Roach, screenwriter Danny Strong, and producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. Game Change is a fascinating example of what happens when politically motivated filmmakers express a clear point of view while simultaneously attempting to seem balanced. Game Change appears to go out of its way to make McCain look like a decent (if opportunistic) guy, and make McCain’s campaign strategist Steve Schmidt look like a noble idealist. The movie even tries to give Palin a softer spin at times, by playing up her everywoman “hockey mom” image while suggesting that she was undone by understandable vanity and inexperience.

But while Game Change makes the story of the ’08 election entertaining, it’s telling that at no point in the film do the “good” Republicans—the ones openly exasperated by Palin, in other words—express strong political convictions. This doesn’t appear to be an intentional commentary by the filmmakers, either. In real life, Schmidt and many of the other advisors to the McCain campaign are rock-ribbed Republicans, but in Game Change, none of them express any vision for the country or for its government—not even “tighten our belts” platitudes. It’s as though no one involved with making the movie could imagine what any of these people actually believe, or why. So in the process of “humanizing” them, they end up cutting off a huge part of what defines them.

That’s a major flaw. But it’s an interesting flaw, because it says as much about Hollywood’s political leanings circa 2012 as it does about the Republican Party circa 2008. And that’s the saving grace of films about history: They become pieces of history in themselves. These movies can and should be criticized for their quality as movies. But after a point, “good” or “bad” doesn’t enter into the discussion so much. Either way, they become documents for the public record.

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