Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Selma," "American Sniper," and Historical Accuracy on Film

It shouldn't come as a surprise to say that I love the Oscar race. There's a unique thrill that I get out of watching different films, figuring out which ones will arbitrarily earn nominations and statuettes from a semi-secretive organization (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) that has long been established as a tastemaker, and using unrelated award ceremonies and critics' prizes to make those predictions. If that sentence sounds a little snarky, it's because being an Oscar pundit requires seriously contemplating something that's inherently ridiculous. The point of it all is to have fun, to recognize that whatever the Academy selects is representative only of the organization's collective taste, and that, best case scenario, it will get audiences to check out films and filmmakers that they may have otherwise ignored.

The worst case scenario, however, is the one that gets played out every year during the height of awards season. We've reached the point where every film is reduced to its Oscar chances, with only the key elements that it's in contention for being the ones deemed worthy of discussion. Those lucky enough to become Best Picture nominees endure endless scrutiny, with pundits (myself included) ignoring the artistic or thematic objectives of the film in order to label it based on its expectations to win: "too traditional" (The Theory of Everything), "too weird/genre-oriented" (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)), or "too controversial" (the subjects of this piece, American Sniper and Selma). The films themselves vanish, giving way to titles and names rather than anything artistic.

And so we've seen two films take two similar, yet distinguished, beatings from the culture at large: Clint Eastwood's Iraq War film American Sniper, and Ava DuVernay's Martin Luther King Jr. film Selma. Both films have been under attack for the way that historical events have been portrayed, but the receptions have been markedly different. While American Sniper rode to six Oscar nominations and became an unexpected smash at the box office ($200 million and counting), Selma only managed two nominations - Best Picture and Best Original Song - while missing out on recognition for DuVernay and David Oyelowo (who plays King).

More after the jump.

To be completely fair, the cultural crosshairs (so to speak) weren't trained on American Sniper until after its impressive nomination haul and subsequent record-breaking weekend at the box office. Selma, on the other hand, was embroiled in debate in the midst of Oscar balloting, meaning that it seems likely that the controversy affected its low nomination total. The focus of the controversy surrounding Selma has, incredibly, been on the film's portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson. Specifically, historians and former Johnson aides have been upset at the way the film portrays the former president as being opposed to the march from Selma, Alabama to the state's capital, Montgomery, as well as the implied accusation that Johnson - either explicitly or implicitly - agreed to have the FBI spy on King and attempt to ruin his credibility as a civil rights leader. Mark Harris has already written a terrific piece about this at Grantland, so I won't dwell on the same points that he has excellently made.

American Sniper, though, has come under attack from critics arguing that the film has distorted the truth surrounding the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as wholesale-inventing large swaths of Chris Kyle's (played by Best Actor nominee Bradley Cooper) experiences during his service. These inventions include both of Kyle's main "nemeses" in Iraq, a high-ranking, power-drill-wielding al-Qaeda official known as "The Butcher" (Mido Hamada) and an al-Qaeda sniper known as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) who nearly matches Kyle in deadliness. The controversy has been partisan, with right-wing supporters hailing the film's virtues as a celebration of American heroism while left-wing critics lambast its warped historicity and implicit Islamophobia.

I'm not here to argue for one side or the other in either case; this is not a blog about politics. What I am going to argue is that historical accuracy should not be the be-all, end-all in the discussion of the quality of these films. To do so is to miss the proverbial forest for the trees.

For one thing, it's foolish to expect 100% accuracy in historical fiction. Those disappointed in minor details being historically inaccurate should know better than to expect a documentary, especially in a narrative film in which actors are portraying historical figures. The question that should be asked in these situations - and it is a question to be asked, not a tirade to be rambled through on the media platform of your choosing - is why these details were altered, especially when the historical record is incomplete and/or contentious. Filmmakers will change details if it better fits the larger point they are trying to make with the film. As Harris noted in his article, by having Johnson reluctant to quickly advance the Voting Rights Act, DuVernay is able to make a larger statement about Johnson's and King's positions within the Civil Rights Movement, and, on a grander scale, the pace of grassroots activism versus that of legislative action.

Similarly, inventing antagonists for Kyle in American Sniper gives the film a more conventional, accessible narrative through which Eastwood can develop the character of Kyle, particularly how his actions at war are affecting him internally. Warfare is messy, complicated, and inherently random; though it would have been bold for Eastwood to make a film that's essentially a collection of scenes from Kyle's tours without much narrative tissue to connect them, that's not the kind of films that Eastwood makes. Events in Kyle's life are invented and rearranged to create a greater impact on the audience, furthering Eastwood's examination of the valor and costs of serving one's country in the military.

In both cases, the politics of these decisions is what has dominated the debates around them, in turning pulling focus away from the filmmakers' intentions. What's also played a role in both films and their controversies is how each film has handled those details and themes. I will be writing more on both films in the future, but DuVernay largely keeps the urgency and thematic timeliness of Selma at the forefront, even though the decision to leave Johnson's involvement in the FBI's schemes ambiguous does feel like a misstep. Eastwood, on the other hand, keeps the battlefield-set thrills tense, but muddies his message through injecting too much rah-rah patriotism and failing to follow-through on Kyle's PTSD. In both cases, the decisions prove to be detrimental (to varying degrees) but do not exclude the films from being worthy of critical discussion.

All of this can also be boiled down to one essential truth: in art, there is no such thing as objective truth. Art - and film is an art - is interpretive, and therefore can carry different meanings for different people. This is made clear in the previous paragraph: surely someone is going to disagree with me about how the filmmakers handled the content of their films, and that's okay. Art should cause disagreements. Art should provoke, inspire, affirm, engage; if it doesn't, then what's the point? Art is a lens through which we make sense of our world, our existence. It's meant to be interpreted. When we sit around and argue about the historical accuracy of the events on film, then we're missing the greater points that the film is making. We're missing the real messages, the things that we should be drawing from our viewings. We're resisting letting these films affect us, challenge us, fascinate us because of petty details. It's possible to dislike Selma without being against its message, just like it's possible to dislike American Sniper and not hate American troops. Everyone will respond differently to individual films, just as with every work of art.

I'm not calling for an end to awards season; after all, it's a lot of fun to make these predictions and discuss these films year after year. But we do need to think about the films as works of art as well, setting aside the controversies that come up over the campaign to Oscar night in order to engage with what the films are doing. Both Selma and American Sniper are films worthy of being seen and discussed. But let's talk about what the films are trying to achieve as a whole, not about the accuracy of every single detail. Let's get below the surface and see what we discover.

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