Historical Blindness?

MovieBob Intermission Historical Controversy - social

American Sniper, Selma, The Imitation Game… What’s with all the controversy over this year’s historical films?

When it comes to covering the movie business, there’s almost nothing as boring as a boring set of Oscar nominees. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Hollywood – and those of us tasked with covering Hollywood – is staring down the barrel of in the coming months. Le sigh. In a year in film where Walt Disney scored an international box-office smash with a pitch-dark revisionist fairy tale about rape-survival, Marvel Studios knocked down the wall between space-opera and superheroes, Bong Joon-Ho staged mankind’s final post-apocalyptic class-war inside a train, Scarlett Johansson wore the skin of an alien honey-trap, David Fincher dropped his nastiest mind-bender since Fight Club and a bunch of toys proved that even a commercial can be a work of art, the year’s contest for Best Picture will be “fought” between a field of the most predictable, lightweight contenders in years.

There are, to be sure, two genuinely great films among the set: Wes Anderson’s beautiful The Grand Budapest Hotel and Ava DuVarney’s transcendant historical drama Selma; but even they fit common profiles of Oscar readiness (i.e. a Civil Rights drama and “Directed by Wes Anderson.”) Otherwise, there are no less than three rote, unchallenging Great Man biopics (American Sniper, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), a pair of pseudo-indies boasting technical gimmicks (Boyhood and Birdman) and the Actor’s Showcase everyone is surprised but unconcerned snuck in (Whiplash). Of the lot, Birdman is the closest to “unusual” with its waking-dream visual digressions and grumpy-superhero Jiminy Cricket narration, but once you skim past the surface it becomes less hard to believe that AMPAS’ voters would warm to the story of an aging former movie-star wracked by ennui over not being as famous or rich as he was once before.

As ever, in the absence of anything particularly interesting to chew over in the film’s themselves, since even the good ones are “good” in about the way they’re expected to be, external controversy has filled the “stuff to talk about” vacuum, with this year’s flavor being Historical Accuracy… more specifically, whether it matters.

If you’re not up on the various issues: American Sniper’s hero, the late Chris Kyle, may not have been the nicest of guys. Imitation Game ignores the real tragedy of Alan Turing’s life (but then has the audacity to cynically re-brand itself as a gay-rights statement for the Awards’ Season. Selma may be treating the Civil Rights legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson unfairly for dramatic purposes. For whatever reason, there doesn’t appear to be any controversy brewing around Theory of Everything other than whether or not star Eddie Redmayne’s Best Actor chances will be negatively impacted by his more recent turn as a mincing, over-the-top campy supervillain in the bound-to-be-divisive Jupiter Ascending.

Of the three, the blowup over Imitation Game feels the most (depressingly) inevitable: Making a movie about Alan Turing’s great accomplishment (crippling the Nazi war codes and laying the foundations of modern computer-science while doing so) while glossing completely over the tragedy that gives it all-important context (the British government paid him back by bullying him into suicide for the “crime” of being gay) is to be expected of middlebrow Awards Bait pablum. In that respect, the brazenly dishonest post-nomination ad campaign (billboards mostly in Los Angeles actually read: “Honor the man – Honor the film.”) is noteworthy for what it says about Hollywood politicking: An industry “progressive” enough to be swayed by the chance to pat themselves on the back for awarding a “gay film” but cravenly-corporatist enough to not actually make one for fear of low box-office out in the windswept plains of Michael Bay’s America.

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Speaking of which, the American Sniper grumbling is easily the least interesting of the bunch. The film was guaranteed a nomination the moment Clint Eastwood – The Academy’s spirit-animal – stepped into the director’s spot, but no one was talking about the possibility of a win until a booster-shot from the Fox News/Talk-Radio cabal rallied red-state Mc’Murica to pack the boxoffice, making it an “audience favorite.” If it actually wins, it’ll be more a validation of Oscar’s devotion to Saint Clint of The Gracefully Aging than any kind of political statement – but that the film’s supposed politics have been made so inextricable from it probably means that’s not something anyone need worry about happening.

Selma, on the other hand, looks to have been caught unawares that there could be anything in question about it. Sure, it’s a movie that’s looking to recast Martin Luther King from sanitized secular-saint back to the real-life radical reformer, but, well… Malcolm X this isn’t. Instead, the film has bumped up awkwardly against a recent smattering of attempt to revamp the image of another Progressive political-icon.

At issue is the film’s framing of then-President Lyndon Johnson as being overly-cautious (to the point of resistant) to passing the landmark Voting Rights Act pushed by King (a still-controversial law that brought the hammer of federal-power down on the voting-infrastructure of ex-Confederate U.S. states with a history of throwing red-tape roadblocks in the way of Black voters). Accounts differ as to how involved/enthusiastic Johnson was in the launching of the Act, but a general consensus seems to agree that he was a least a noteworthy bit less-resistant than audiences who get the story only from Selma may know.

Normally, this isn’t the sort of thing that would cause waves (unless you’re a rival studio feeding non-troversies to the press to hurt your competition, which I expect is the source of a good deal of this). American Sniper might be grossly-misrepresenting the reality of very recent events and Imitation Game is rather certainly playing it safe with the truth of its subject’s life; but at worst Selma can be said to have indulged in narrative-simplification for dramatic purposes, i.e. it’s version of LBJ is also a stand-in for approximately half a country’s worth of sympathetic-yet-not-engaged-enough White Americans of the day along with being a figure of history.

Unfortunately, the timing of all this has coincided with a small but growing effort among American Progressives to “reclaim” the often-derrided overall legacy of LBJ, who’s historical unpopularity paired with his far-reaching “Great Society” social reform agenda has long been used as a cudgel against similar social-reforms since. At any other point in history, another film propping up “LBJ: Well-Meaning Half-Measure Guy” would pass without notice, but here and now it’s an issue to the very same generation and temperament of Hollywood denizens voting on the Oscars.

From my own perspective, these things matter on a case-by-case basis. American Sniper’s (perhaps unintended) potential to reframe the Iraq War and the Bush/Cheney quagmire period of the so-called “War on Terror” as heroic and noble (rather than a widely-acknowledged cluster of disasterous missteps) “matters” because people are still fighting and dying in it even as the last difficult steps of extricating ourselves from it are underway is intensely worrisome and (from a certain perspective) deeply irresponsible. Imitation Game’s sanding the edges off of Alan Turing’s story is objectively grotesque but doesn’t really detract from the film’s true purpose: Securing Benedict Cumberbatch’s transition from Tumblr icon to “good actor” before he jumps aboard the Marvel gravy train for Doctor Strange. But the swatting at Selma feels puzzlingly nitpicky – the complaints coming down to people demanding to know why a supporting character in the story isn’t the star.

Whether or not any of this has any bearing on the results, of course, cannot be known until The Oscars are actually handed out on February 22nd – or, rather, that would be the case if the voting totals weren’t kept a tightly-guarded secret. So for now it remains a guessing game as to whether or not Hollywood will choose to take its own advice about never letting truth get in the way of a good story.


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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.