The critique, written by former CIA official Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., suggests anew the mythmaking capacity of fact-based films. “Inevitably,” Rodriguez writes of Zero Dark Thirty, “films like this come to be seen by the public as a sort of proxy for reality.”
And that’s especially troubling because, as Rodriguez also points out:
“One of the advantages of inhabiting the world of Hollywood is that you can have things both ways.” Publicity for Zero Dark Thirty emphasizes that it rests upon careful research, Rodriguez notes; at the same time, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, has insisted it’s “not a documentary.”
Carefully researched, yet with enough fictional or imaginative elements so that it’s no documentary: Such have been the ingredients of mythmaking by the cinema.
All the President’s Men offers a compelling example.
The hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that the dogged investigative journalism of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — was propelled and solidified by the cinematic treatment of Woodward and Bernstein‘s 1974 book, All the President’s Men.
The movie version was fact-based, but certainly no documentary treatment of Watergate (even though the Post once referred to the film as journalism’s “finest 2 hours and 16 minutes“).
As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, All the President’s Men the movie offers “a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account of the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”
The omissions made for a cleaner storyline — and promoted a media-centric myth that not even Woodward embraces.
“To say that the press brought down Nixon,” Woodward once told American Journalism Review, “that’s horseshit.”
All the President’s Men was made in 1976 and remains the most-viewed cinematic treatment of Watergate — a “proxy for reality” about how America’s greatest political scandal was rolled up. It’s Watergate simplified.
Rodriguez says in his commentary that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty get a lot right: Notably, they “portray the hunt for bin Laden as a 10-year marathon, rather than a sprint ordered by a new president.”
His principal concern is the movie’s depiction of the interrogation of captured al-Qaeda operatives. The interrogation scenes early in the movie “torture the truth,” he writes, adding:
“The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.
“The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program which I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention.”
I’ve not seen Zero Dark Thirty. But Rodriguez’s critique seems well-reasoned. He advises theatergoers to recognize “that Zero Dark Thirty is more than a movie and less than the literal truth.”
I’d shift the obligation somewhat, away from moviegoers: It behooves the makers of fact-based movies to stipulate that “fact-based” doesn’t mean factual, that even high-quality cinematic treatments simplify and distort.
Fact-based movies ought not be served up in effect as history lessons for the public.
Perhaps, Bernstein added, “the rule of thumb is this: When artists, intentionally or not, distort the known facts to get an effect, either political or commercial, they are on the wrong side of the line between poetic truth and historical falsification. Artists who present as fact things that never happened, who refuse to allow the truth to interfere with a good story, are betraying their art and history as well.”
Ideally, fact-based movies would be so compelling as to stimulate interest and curiosity, to encourage passive theatergoers to find out more about the subject, to conduct some research on their own.
Doing so isn’t always easy; but it can be an antidote to cinematic mythmaking.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2012
- Woah, WaPo: Mythmaking in the movies
- ‘Follow the money’ and the power of cinema
- Cinema and the tenacity of media myths
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- Watergate and its hardy myths
- Historian dismisses as ‘self-promotion’ the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Little sustained media reflection two weeks after botched massacre coverage
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on Q-and-A