Just How Faithful to the Truth Does Fiction Based in Fact Need to Be?

I think about this a lot because I have both aesthetics in me: the artist and the historian.  I have a strong opinion on this that there are limits to artistic license when portraying actual events and people. This subject needs more review in regards to projects like “The Looming Tower” or “The Crown” (and literally dozens more that I could name) portraying public figures both alive and dead, and events of news importance with great consequences on public opinion for those being portrayed. What really caught my attention was this article in the NYT about 101 year old Olivia deHavilland who is suing the producers of “Feud: Bette and Joan”

Firstly, hey she’s a two time Oscar winner and one of the last living ties to the glamour age of the movie industry, still alive at 101.  She made her first film in 1935 and was a contemporary of Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, a who’s who of the luminaries of the golden age of studio filmmaking from the 1930s-50s.

And she’s going to court to protect her reputation from her unauthorized portrayal in Ryan Murphy’s television series about the legendary feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford when filming “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” in 1962. De Havilland was friends with both women and is portrayed in the modern telling by Catherine Zeta Jones. de Havilland believes the producers and writers took liberties with her portrayal that she doesn’t appreciate. They claim artistic license in telling a real life story but within the constraits of drama. Which begs the question: do the artists who claim license get away with a lot of inaccuracies merely because the objects are mostly gone and unable to object? What responsibility to the viewer, as well as the people being portrayed, does the artist have to get the facts right?

When I watch a scene from “The Looming Tower” based on the book by Lawrence Wright about the intelligence community and the run up to the events of 9/11, I am comparing every scene to what I have read in other books, including the  9/11 Commission Report. Some of the characters portrayed are real people like FBI agent Ali Soufan who is a consultant on the project. Some characters, like CIA station chief Martin Schmidt, is a fictional depiction, a composite of real people. So when I watch the scenes with Soufan, I can have some assurance that it happened just that way. The scenes in which Schmidt shares screentime with other fictional or composite characters leave me wondering and wanting to consult the source material. Frankly, I am uneasy with those scenes that are pure creations of the filmmakers.

I get that the filmmakers aren’t documentarians (although the first episode of “The Looming Tower was directed by renowned documentarian Alex Gibney director of the excellent “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side”), they’re not to be held to a cinema verite standard, but it’s sort of trying to eat their cake and have it too to try to tell a real story, but have the crutch of being able to control a script, hire an actor, direct a scene portraying an actual event with the latitude of artistic license. My feeling is that with great asserted latitude, comes great responsibility to get it fucking right. And not just “essentially” right. Would the people who lived the actual scenes recognize themselves in the portrayal?

As wonderful as “The Crown” is as drama, story telling, writing, acting and set design, if a story comes out that they took a little too much license with an event or a person, that would throw shade on the entire enterprise. My favorite part is at the end of certain episodes when they show documentary footage of something portrayed in the episode, the real persons portrayed, with a blurb about further historical information.  Same for the great Netflix series “Narcos” which has spent three seasons fictionalizing the DEA’s efforts to stop the Medellin and Cali drug cartels based on the real stories of the DEA agents involved. The producers there often mix actual film and TV footage from the time in with the dramatized footage and actors in thrilling fashion for me. When they do that I feel like they’re certifying that they’ve grounded the depiction in fact and I can rely on them. They share my concern for getting it right.

This is going to be a growing concern as so many cable channels and content providers are running themselves ragged to create original programming that captures eyeballs. Real life events are always attractive. Artists that want to work in this field are well advised to remember that license is limited. Approach it like a documentarian with some latitude, rather than as an artist that happens to be telling a true life story.

in that regard I heartily recommend “I, Tonya” the thoroughly surprising and enjoyable film about Tonya Harding. I thought that deserved a best picture nomination over some of the other films. I enjoyed it more than “Three Billboards” I can tell you that.





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