Privileging Reality: The Dangers of Historicity

Brent Lang over at The Wrap has a thought provoking discussion “Truth and Fiction in ‘The King’s Speech’” today.  As I’m sure any film enthusiast—or anyone who has encountered any sort of media in the past twenty-four hours—knows, The King’s Speech has been nominated for an impressive 12 Academy Awards this year and many currently consider it the front runner of the Best Picture race.  This comes on the heels, of course, of a season’s worth of critics and film-goers predicting that the race’s other biopic, David Fincher’s The Social Network, would be taking home the top honors this February.

I always find it interesting when the Oscar nominations seem to cluster around similar topics and themes.  Who doesn’t remember the year the nominees included two movies about the Elizabethan period and three concerning various aspects of WWII; 1998, if I recall correctly?  This year two of the most talked about pictures in contention are biographical films tracing the rising success of young men to positions of power—a wartime king and the current king of social media, that is.

In this article, Brent Lang, commenting on the trend of post-nomination negative criticism for the perceived “front-runner” that seems to occur every year, brings to light two recently published editorials on Hooper’s The King’s SpeechChristopher Hitchens (Slate) and Martin Filler (NYR Blog) are both very concerned with the historical inaccuracies that they have identified in the film, including the character of the historical King George VI and the relationship Winston Churchill maintained with the abdicated Edward, Duke of Windsor.

“Gross falsifications,” Hitchens writes; “fitfully authentic,” concurs Filler.  Hitchens even goes so far as to suggest that a deliberate rewrite of history is happening (“a major desecration of the historical record”), sanctioned, even, as it “[glides] unopposed toward a baptism by Oscar.”

And these things may be true.  I am no expert.  But, as Lang points out, the timing of these articles is suspicious; both were released just shortly after the nominations for this year’s Oscar ceremony had been announced.  He sees a conspiracy in the works, attempts to cast a discerning eye on the near sure-thing in this race.

“That Facebook movie,” or The Social Network, if you’re not my grandmother, has faced similar criticism, though those advocating against it have been over-shadowed by the current King’s Speech naysayers.  Multiple individuals have come forward and called out the writer and director of The Social Network, claiming that the events portrayed within are only true in the most limited of senses.  Jose Antonio Vargas, who profiled the reclusive Mark Zuckerberg for “The New Yorker,” calls the movie “irresponsible” for creating a false impression of the historical facts that will long be a part of Facebook’s (and Zuckerberg’s) cultural public profile.

Here is my question.  Outside of the Documentary Feature and Documentary Short categories, when does historical accuracy or historicity matter?  Why should an Academy voter, or anyone, for that matter, care about the veracity of a story in the Oscar competition?

I don’t believe they should.  I believe that the race for Best Picture should be about the best movie of the year, not the most historical movie, or the most accurate movie in the running.  (Explain Avatar, then, if that’s the case.)  Movie-making, and this is true even within the scope of the documentary filmmaker, is about storytelling, and every story privileges one perspective over all others.  Even outside the world of film, the story of history is riddled with historical inaccuracies that have been accepted as fact over the long passage of time.  History is shaped by time and reflection.  Not to mention politics and policy.

Does the fact that King George VI himself may not have been as sympathetic as Colin Firth’s portrayal within the movie negatively impact your enjoyment of the film?  Or that Mark Zuckerberg may be, in reality and in person, a much more compassionate and relatable individual than he appears portrayed in The Social Network?

No.  It would be one thing to call into question the accuracy of an actor’s performance, but it is another thing entirely to call faulty the merits of an entire film for what some feel to be an inaccurate representation of a historical situation.  And yet every time a movie that has some tie to a history finds itself chasing the golden statue, a small cabal of critics come out to accuse it of misrepresentation.

As Harold Evans, journalist and author of “My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times,” says about the criticism that The King’s Speech is currently facing: “I feel irritated by this attempt to make a political point with something that is an inspirational film.”

Ditto.

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