Truth in Movies

Posted on January 31, 2015


Movies are different from books, even if the movie is based on a book, let’s say a biography, or the history of an event. Fiction is another whole realm. Each—fiction and non-fiction—has its attractions.

If the biography or history expects to have an impact, it must be well written, organized and presented, preferably with a powerful message, and written in an equally compelling narrative. It also should be as close to the truth as the author can get.

Good histories or biographies not only stick to the truth, or the facts as they exist, but render an interpretation and/or a meaning derived from the subject of the book. In other words, anyone can compile the facts that surround, let’s say, the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Compiled, that could be a chronology or encyclopedia entry.

But a great historian, like Samuel Eliot Morison for example, who produced a magnificent two-volume biography of Columbus, will interpret for us what Columbus was really about, his psychological profile, his world, his dreams, his accomplishments within the context of the late Medieval world.

A movie, on the other hand, is about two hours in length. It cannot replicate the length and richness of a biography. It must pick and choose how to render the story.

If you want to tell the story of the Civil War, for example, then a documentary maker such as Ken Burns will produce a long set of documentaries, each building on the last in the attempt to be thorough.

My prejudice, BTW, is for a movie based on history, the “true story” as I were. Saving Private Ryan was based on true events, and it knocked your socks off not simply because it viewed warfare, especially the invasion of Normandy at D-Day in June, 1944, for its brutality, but also because it was true. It happened.

It resonates differently with you than some dipsy doodle sci fi flick with wizards and super heroes battling in galactic space. That entertains. The non-fiction movie not only will entertain if done well, but it also will teach you something about yourself and our world.

Two new non-fiction movies have appeared recently, one a biography of a man, Unbroken, and the other the history of a moment in the Civil Rights movement, Selma. I read the book Unbroken, written by Laura Hillenbrand when it first came out.

I also lived through the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak. While the battle of Selma unfurled and conquered the hearts and souls of so many Americans, I was in the fleet in the Mediterranean or Caribbean.

What is interesting in examining movies is sometimes what is left out. For me, it’s like reading footnotes in a biography or history. You are likely to find some real gems in those notes which didn’t make it to the narrative.

When I read Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini who spent almost three years as a POW of the Japanese during the Second World War, I was profoundly moved by Zamperini’s encounter with the spirit of God at a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles in 1948.

Zamperini was changed from a hard drinking, angry, hateful survivor of awful persecution and suffering at the hands of the Japanese into a born-again Christian. It changed his life, but only survived as a short postscript to his life at the end of the movie.

In Selma the role of President Lyndon Baines Johnson in translating the power of the Civil Rights movement from the streets into legislation in 1964 and 1965 is hardly mentioned at all, and LBJ is depicted negatively.
That both Billy Graham and LBJ were either excised or misrepresented from the full story is of course the director or producer’s prerogative. They put up the bucks and make the movies.

Their decisions reflect their judgment, perhaps their politics, their religious views, their agendas.

We don’t grade movies, at least not formally, other than giving them ratings on the appropriate age level for viewers, from ok for family and the kiddies to XXX, which is close to pure, unbridled hard core violence or porn.

I might give these two movies a C- in my way of grading them as history. A C is average, and a minus is to indicate some serious flaws or failures to tell the “full” story.

I realize the limitations of putting a book or complicated story into the confines of a two hour movie. It takes tremendous creativity, sensitivity, discernment, and recognizing what is important.

The directors on these two movies get high marks on making exciting and moving films, but missed the mark on showing us what truly and “really” happened to Zamperini, and to how MLK,Jr.’s vision was translated into the law of the land.

Published in my OpEd column, “The Port Rail,” Sunday January 25, 2015 as “Non-Fiction Movies Should Stick to Truth” in The Tuscaloosa News.