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Image: "Frost/Nixon"
Ralph Nelson  /  AP
Frank Langella portrays Richard Nixon, left, and Michael Sheen portrays David Frost in a scene from the film, "Frost/Nixon."
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/2/2008 5:51:57 PM ET 2008-12-02T22:51:57

If you watched Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK,” and came away with the belief that everybody did it, you also unintentionally stumbled into a debate about the responsibilities of filmmakers dealing with historical subject matter. “JFK” still stands as the most notorious example of how Hollywood sometimes takes facts, puts them in a blender, then serves the resulting smoothie to often unsuspecting moviegoers.

Of course, this phenomenon is hardly an issue to those who do not go to the cinema for a history lesson. There are plenty of folks who read and seek their history from historians. They can differentiate between what is presented as an objective account of real events and what is offered as entertainment.

The film “Frost/Nixon” opens Dec. 5. It is an adaptation of a stage play by Peter Morgan, which is itself taken from a series of real-life interviews done in 1977 between British TV personality David Frost and former President Richard M. Nixon. The stage version received raves when it opened in London two years ago, and the Ron Howard-directed film is receiving a considerable amount of Oscar buzz.

Whenever a movie based on history hits the theaters, it sometimes creates a current of discontent among those who prefer letter-perfect depictions. One of the points from that camp is that such films may cause younger viewers who are unfamiliar with the true-life topics to believe everything they see.

“My view is, if you get your history from movies, you get what you deserve,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and the author of several books, including “The Keys to the White House” and “White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.”

“You go to movies not to learn about history but to be entertained, frightened, thrilled. That’s all great. But there’s no reason that an episode of history has to be done with a certain degree of accuracy, because that’s not the objective of a movie.”

Nixon presidency ‘ancient history’
Lichtman’s class might serve as a particularly useful petri dish with the release of a film about Nixon. He said American University has “the most politically active and aware student body in the country; we’re awash in government and history.” Even so, he described the Nixon presidency as “ancient history to them.”

“But when I talk about Watergate in my class, I get a lot of interest,” he said, “particularly when I explain that it was more than just a break-in.”

Slideshow: Holiday movie guide: Oscar bait And that resulting inquisitiveness might be the best by-product of a film like “Frost/Nixon” and other fact-based pictures. “If a good movie stimulates you to read history, then I think it serves a tremendous purpose,” he said. “Even something as speculative as ‘JFK,’ if it causes you to read books about the assassination, that’s a good thing.”

Rick Jewell is a cinema professor at the University of Southern California. His experience has been that such films rarely create interest in the subject matter that they’re covering among those who don’t already have an interest.

“I don’t think the younger generation is very much interested in history,” he said. “In fact, I’m not sure young people have ever been excited about events from the past unless they had a strong action-adventure component (‘Adventures of Robin Hood,’ ‘Gladiator’) or a romantic component (‘Gone With The Wind,’ ‘Titanic’). But yes, they undoubtedly pick up some historical knowledge from the movies, though this knowledge is often inaccurate.”

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Naturally, these films are made by humans, with their own perspectives and opinions. That means decisions are made as to which facts to depict accurately and which to fudge.

Does a filmmaker have a responsibility to get it right, historically speaking?

“Unless the film is presented as a documentary, no strict adherence to the historical record is mandated,” said film critic James Berardinelli, whose reviews can be found on his Web site, reelviews.net. “When a movie is presented as fiction, even if it is ‘based on a true story,’ a certain amount of dramatic license is expected.”

Somewhere between fact and imagination
It might be expected, but it’s not always appreciated. Dr. Deborah A. Carmichael, who teaches film classes at Michigan State University, believes films based on history “should be somewhere in between” being faithful to the facts and being imaginative. But every history buff has his or her own personal cinematic hall of shame.

Video: ‘Frost/Nixon’ “Generally, I’m pretty forgiving,” she said. “The one film that bothered me most, though, was Michael Mann’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’” Carmichael said of the 1992 release. “He pretty much changed the themes and turned things upside down. Not that it wasn’t enjoyable to watch. But anyone familiar with the original story knows he took a lot of liberties. That’s probably the one I’m most riled about.

“He changed some of (James Fenimore) Cooper’s characters around, and as a result changed themes.”

Berardinelli offered up two films that he feels are “nearly 100 percent factually accurate”: “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “Gettysburg.”

“As for the most inaccurate supposedly-based-on-a-true-story movie,” he said, “I’d nominate, ‘Hidalgo.’”

As for “Frost/Nixon,” Carmichael believes it has one factor working for it and another against it.

“Certain eras interest students more than others,” she said. “The ’60s seem to capture the students’ imagination, because of the mythos of drugs, sex and rock and roll. A lot of students are attracted to that era.

“But ‘Frost/Nixon’ … will probably be a tough sell. … They don’t have a connection to the original events that older audiences have.”

USC’s Jewell was even more pessimistic: “Will ‘Frost/Nixon’ have a strong impact on a new generation? I doubt it, because I sincerely doubt many young people will go unless their teachers or parents force them to. Kids today could not care less about Richard Nixon and they have no idea who David Frost was.”

Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: Presidential portrayers

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  1. Paul Giamatti

    In the film "W". from director Oliver Stone, Josh Brolin portrays President George W. Bush. But Brolin is far from the first actor to make it to the White House on the silver screen; many stars have played commanders in chief, some real, some fictional.

    Played: Real-life president John Adams

    In: "John Adams" (2008)

    Fun fact: Giamatti's costars in the HBO miniseries included Zeljko Ivanek (left) as Pennsylvania representative John Dickinson and Tom Wilkinson (center) as Benjamin Franklin. (HBO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Martin Sheen

    Played: Fictional president Josiah "Jed" Bartlett

    In: "The West Wing" (1999-2006)

    Fun fact: Sheen's TV character was a fictional descendant of the real-life Josiah Bartlett, a member of the Second Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence. (NBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Anthony Hopkins

    Played: Real-life president John Quincy Adams

    In: "Amistad" (1997)

    Fun fact: Sean Connery was approached to play the sixth president (son of sixth president John Adams) in Steven Spielberg's film about an 1839 slave rebellion, but turned it down. (DreamWorks via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Kevin Kline

    Played: Fictional president Bill Mitchell

    In: "Dave" (1993)

    Fun fact: Kline plays dual roles in this comedy: a philandering president, and the innocent lookalike who takes his place when the president suffers a stroke during illicit sex. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Henry Fonda

    Played: Real-life president Abraham Lincoln

    In: "Young Mr. Lincoln"(1939)

    Fun fact: After portraying the early legal career of president-to-be Abraham Lincoln in this fictional drama, Fonda went on to play fictional presidents in two later films: "Fail-Safe" (1964) and "Meteor" (1979). (20th Century Fox via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Spencer Tracy

    Played: Fictional presidential candidate Grant Matthews

    In: "State of the Union" (1948)

    Fun fact: Tracys frequent costar Katharine Hepburn played his estranged wife, who pretends to reconcile with him to get him elected because she believes hed be a great president. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Robin Williams

    Played: Real-life president Theodore Roosevelt

    In: "Night at the Museum" (2006)

    Fun fact: Ben Stiller (left) plays a security guard at New York's Museum of Natural History who's shocked when the exhibits come to life ... including a wax statue of Teddy Roosevelt. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Jack Nicholson

    Played: Fictional president James Dale

    In: "Mars Attacks!" (1996)

    Fun fact: In addition to playing a president who makes the big mistake of believing that Martian visitors have peaceful intentions, Nicholson also plays a greedy Las Vegas developer. (Warner Bros via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Kenneth Branagh

    Played: Real-life president Franklin Delano Roosevelt

    In: "Warm Springs" (2005)

    Fun fact: Branagh plays a pre-president FDR as he seeks a cure for his paralysis, while Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City" costars as his wife, Eleanor. The automobile Branagh drives in "Warm Springs" is the same one the real FDR drove, complete with 1920s hand controls. (HBO via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Michael Douglas

    Played: Fictional president Andrew Shepherd

    In: "The American President" (1995)

    Fun fact: Douglas plays a widowed president who falls in love with lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade. The telephone number President Shepherd gives Sydney (Annette Bening) to call him back in this romantic comedy-drama is in fact the real number to the White House. (Sony) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tom Selleck

    Played: Real-life president Dwight D. Eisenhower

    In: "Ike: Countdown to D-Day" (2004)

    Fun fact: Before being elected the 34th president, Eisenhower had an outstanding career in the military. This film depicts how he orchestrated one of the greatest invasions in history. (A&E via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Morgan Freeman

    Played: Fictional president Tom Beck

    In: "Deep Impact" (1998)

    Fun fact: When the president is addressing the nation about an oncoming comet, a tattoo on Freeman's arm is showing. The director liked this element because she felt it gave the president an everyday man look. (Paramount via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Bruce Greenwood

    Played: Real-life president John F. Kennedy

    In: "Thirteen Days" (2000)

    Fun fact: Much of the dialogue from "Thirteen Days" is taken directly from Kennedy's personal tapes during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. JFK frequently set up recording machines during meetings at the White House. (New Line Cinema via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. John Travolta

    Played: Fictional president Jack Stanton

    In: "Primary Colors" (1998)

    Fun fact: President Bill Clinton enjoyed this fictionalized version of his own career so much that he invited John Travolta to a party on one condition: he had to come as Governor Jack Stanton. Travolta declined. (Uniiversal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Dan Hedaya

    Played: Real-life president Richard M. Nixon

    In: "Dick" (1999)

    Fun fact: Director Andrew Fleming wanted the feel of a 1970s movie for this comedy about Watergate, so he used analog tape editing tools rather than digital. (Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Chris Rock

    Played: Fictional president Mays Gilliam

    In: "Head of State" (2003)

    Fun fact: Rock claims he got the idea for this comedy from the Democrats running Geraldine Ferraro with Walter Mondale in 1984 ... they knew they would lose to Ronald Reagan, but thought they could gain support for the following election by having a historic first. (DreamWorks Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Josh Brolin

    Played: Real-life president George W. Bush

    In: "W." (2008)

    Fun fact: Brolin watched videos of George Bush walking so he could capture the style just right. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Geena Davis

    Played: Fictional president MacKenzie Allen

    In: "Commander in Chief" (2005-2006)

    Fun fact: Joan Allen and Kristin Scott Thomas were originally approached to play the first U.S. woman president. Creator Rod Lurie planned the TV series as a sequel to the film "The Contender." (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
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