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.”
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.”
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.
“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.