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The Tale of Two Stories

February 26, 2015

Spontaneous electric sparks are flying in and out from a formidable, intricate metal sculpture, and a single British mathematician and cryptologist stands in front, turning dials with shaking hands. It's an iconic scene in the biopic "The Imitation Game", as one of the first digital computers in the world carries out its first calculations for its creator and mathematician Alan Turing. Unfortunately, it's also something that never actually happened in history, not quite in that way. This year's Oscar nominee "The Theory of Everything" is a sequence of beautifully ironic pursuit of time by physicist Stephen Hawking, but it isn't without factual inaccuracies of its own. In Steve Jobs's biopic "Jobs", then again, most controversially in the historical drama "Selma", and yet again in "The Social Network", a film on the founding of Facebook, historical films seem to be constantly criticized for its inability to stay completely true to the known historical facts.

I think there are multiple reasons for this, all of which have to do with the fact that films and plot-lines are planned for a purpose and laid out to contain a greater meaning. "The Theory of Everything", for example, is produced to present a story about fate and struggles against it, and people's ability to overcome those struggles through love and incredible perseverance. And to a large degree, Stephen Hawking's real story is just as inspiring. But at some point the director of the film must make a decision between adding artistic flair to the story and staying completely faithful to history, and like many other films, this one takes liberty with its small details while staying true to its overall arc of the story. "The Imitation Game", on the other hand, takes a bit more freedom with how its story unfolds, favoring artistic style and drama over completely accurate reflection of history. I think that works out well for the film, though, in becoming more emotionally powerful and insightful. The same goes for "Jobs", which also favored to add a bit of its own color to the story of Steve Jobs and Apple. Most notably, there has been a lot of recent controversy over historical accuracy (or bias, depending on your perspective) of "Selma" in portraying certain characters, especially President Johnson's role in the civil rights movements. To this, "Selma"'s director Ava Duvernay said in an interview, "this is art. This is a movie. This is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian. I am an artist who explored history. And what I found, the questions that I have, the ideas that I have about history, I have put into this project that I have made....I’m not a custodian of anyone’s legacy."

"I am an artist who explored history...not a custodian of anyone's legacy." - Ava Duvernay, Director, "Selma"

The vast majority of the time, creative arts and history or scientific facts hardly come in conflict. But "Selma" was one time when it did, and it raised an important question: should historical, satirical, or social works of art stay faithful to historical facts, or should they have the artistic liberty to create something different out of the reality? In other words, do biographical and historical films have an obligation of sorts to be factually accurate? I would venture to first say that there is a clear distinction to be made between documentaries, which are by definition nonfiction, and historical films or arts, which are by definition works of art. And despite whatever visual similarities they may share, they're fundamentally different in their goals and the reason for their creation. Documentaries exist to deliver accurate, important information. Eyes on the Prize, for example, is an example of a documentary on the events at Selma, Alabama. Works of art, on the other hand, don't exist for the sake of any kind of factual delivery. Instead works of art exist to evoke emotions, lead the audience to ask important questions, and think critically about themselves and the world around them. In other words, in a documentary about a historical event, the event is the subject of the discussion, and hence needs to be treated with careful attention to accuracy. But in a work of art, a historical event is at best a vehicle by which the filmmaker, writer, or painter wants to deliver his or her message of the work of art. And in that way, as Duvernay put it, the artist may not be held "a custodian of anyone's legacy".

Do historical films and biopics have a duty to be faithful to the facts, or is there room for artistic liberty?

I think the discussion of factual accuracy versus artistic liberty is not one of correctness or respect to history, but more of a Tale of Two Stories. In other words, there are two main ways to look at a historical event or someone's life story. The first is to look at only the facts, and the verifiable, historical details, to fully understand and come to terms with history and learn from the events of the past so that we can move on and build upon it in the future. But I think the second angle of perspective is much more interesting, that is to treat history as a rich artistic narrative, a tool for any artist to use and evoke in order to create a resounding message to the audience. Neither of these perspectives are any more valid than the other, just as Salvador Dali's paintings are not more valid than one from a realist merely because of their "accuracies".

Criticizing a work of art for its factuality is like criticizing Dali's paintings for not being realistic enough. (Dali's "Swans Reflecting Elephants")
Should historical, satirical, or social works of art stay faithful to historical facts, or should they have the artistic liberty to create something different out of the reality?

From this perspective, criticizing a film, a work of art, for its factual inaccuracies amounts to nothing more than dissing an SUV for its fuel efficiency or judging an architect for his background in agriculture. Films like "Selma" and "The Imitation Game" may not be the most accurate, unbiased representations of their historical counterparts, but that's alright, because they're not meant to be. Works of art, no matter their relationship to history, do not have an obligation to be factually correct. They exist for the same reason as all other great stories, to lead us to a deeper understanding of reality. And if a slightly styled version of history can achieve that effectively, I don't think we should miss that value by a careless oversight.