Historical Accuracy in Movies: Todd’s Take

This post could also be titled “One of Todd’s Biggest Pet Peeves with Other Moviegoers”.

Allow me to explain. Over the past year, we’ve seen a number of pictures based on historical events, some more recent and some much older. Quite a few are Best Picture nominees. Argo, centered on events during the Iranian Hostage crisis in 1979. Lincoln, focusing on the passage of the 13th amendment. Zero Dark Thirty, about the manhunt and raid to kill Osama Bin Laden. Even Django Unchained, which isn’t a true story but has self-appointed historians talking about its realism or non-realism during the slavery era in which it takes place.

There were biopics like Hitchcock, with Anthony Hopkins as the great director. And Hyde Park on Hudson, casting Bill Murray as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This year, we’ll see Naomi Watts in a Princess Diana biopic. Also The Butler, about a White House caretaker who served eight Presidents.

Inevitably, these kinds of pictures serve as fodder for followers of those times to harp and complain about “historical inaccuracies”. This picking apart is often used as a convenient crutch to explain why one doesn’t care for a particular title: “I didn’t like Zero Dark Thirty because I don’t think that’s how detainees were tortured” or “They were certain politicians just as important to the 13th amendment in Lincoln that weren’t talked about”.

And, yes, this serves as one of my biggest pet peeves with other film fans. Why? I’ll explain my position. It’s pretty simple. It’s these three words. Read carefully: It’s a movie. 

It’s. A. Movie.

Even movies based on historical events are not meant to be documentaries. Why? Because those are called documentaries.

Let me repeat: Documentaries are supposed to be historically accurate. This is not required of movies.

Again: It’s. A. Movie.

To me, movies are meant to be judged on how well you liked it or not. How entertained you were. How thrilled you were. How funny it is. How moved you were. And so on and so forth.

The biggest examples with this pet peeve of mine occur when political opinion interferes with a movie watcher’s experience. Oliver Stone’s Nixon is a perfect example. Those on the right felt it was far too harsh on the President. Those on the left felt it didn’t hit the President hard enough. My opinion? Nixon is a terrific picture about a man whose demons get the best of him at the highest levels of power. It’s a fascinating portrait of someone who has the power to do nearly anything, but goes too far in pursuit of that power for small and unnecessary reasons.

Here’s the important thing: do I think everything in Nixon happened in “real life”? Of course not. Did the film change my personal opinion of Mr. Nixon? Not it did not. Why?

Because… It’s. A Movie. It’s Oliver Stone’s take on the Nixon presidency. And filmmakers have a right to make movies signifying… well, whatever the heck they want.

Films such as Michael Mann’s The Insider, about the cigarette companies misleading the public as to health risks, were criticized for some inaccuracies. In my mind, The Insider is one of the best films of the last 20 years. I could care less whether certain events happened in a particular order, etc…

I could go on and on. You get the idea. I respect everyone’s opinions when it comes to movies. What I don’t quite respect is being so nitpicky when it comes to pictures based on actual events. That’s not what movies are all about. Not to me, at least.

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