Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty are terrific, fact-based movies that richly deserve their nominations for best picture at the Oscars ceremony Sunday. All three, though, have been attacked for taking liberties with the truth.
That breathless, edge-of-your-seat chase scene at the end of Argo, for example? Never happened. Director and lead actor Ben Affleck cheerfully admits it was invented to add drama to the story about U.S. diplomats and CIA operatives escaping from Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran.
The climactic roll call toward the end of Lincoln that shows two Connecticut House members voting against the amendment to abolish slavery? Actually, as Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., pointed out, all of his state’s representatives voted for the amendment.
And those graphic scenes in Zero Dark Thirty that leave the impression that waterboarding al-Qaida members led the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan? U.S. senators and other officials have criticized the movie’s depiction of the importance of "enhanced interrogation" as inaccurate.
Does any of this really matter?
At one level, no. Few people go to movies, other than documentaries, expecting the details to be scrupulously accurate. Writers make up dialogue and characters all the time to illuminate the larger truth of an event, or simply to make a complex story entertaining.
All three of these films vividly tell stories that watchers — many of whom are famously ignorant of even recent U.S. history, much less the Civil War era — are richer for knowing. And if viewers care to learn more, plenty of fact-checkers are eager to help them separate historical fact from fiction.
At another level, however, filmmakers are trying to have it both ways. They demand the credibility and box-office appeal that comes from telling a real story, but also insist on the artistic licence to scramble the facts. Some of the inaccuracies seem, well, unnecessary.
Argo was a good enough story without the invented airport chase scene. But the cliche Hollywood ending is relatively inconsequential in the context of a movie with a comic subplot that winks at the audience and suggests the tale shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously.
Lincoln feels much weightier, if only because the story of slavery and the agonizing fight to abolish it will always be the most morally painful chapter of U.S. history. So the filmmakers’ decision to change votes for dramatic effect at the end of the movie seems like a casual and gratuitous betrayal of the commitment to tell such an important story, particularly in a movie destined for use in classrooms.
The toughest case is Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of torture, which has the potential to influence and inflame public opinion on an important national policy issue. Asked about the movie, ex-CIA director Leon Panetta said harsh interrogation methods played a role in locating bin Laden, though not a decisive one. That has the ring of truth, and it leaves the nation with a morally ambiguous debate over whether the ends justified the means.
In the final analysis, filmmakers have no higher obligation than effectively telling a story. And viewers have to keep in mind that "based on a true story" typically means "some of this is factual, but we made up a bunch of stuff to sell more tickets." Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s usually not as interesting.