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adjust the facts, ma'am


"To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately."
- Alfred Hitchcock

According to TV Guide, it appears that some key players at 60 Minutes -- particularly Mike Wallace and executive producer Don Hewitt -- are none too thrilled with Michael Mann's upcoming project about Lowell Bergman, the former 60 Minutes producer who fought (and failed) to get CBS to air an exposé on the tobacco industry. The script (by Eric Forrest Gump Roth) makes a hero out of Bergman and paints CBS and 60 Minutes as cowards in the face of a potential lawsuit. So of course there's been the usual bitching about how facts and people are misrepresented in the script. Usually only Oliver Stone gets subjected to this kind of scrutiny, in which a movie is discredited while still at the script stage. As if Mann didn't have enough to worry about from the tobacco industry, he now has a pissed-off CBS to deal with.

*sigh* Once more, from the top: Movies are not history books. History books are history books, and movies are movies. Every time a docudrama or biopic comes out, the journalistic pundits and guardians of history decide it's clobberin' time. They want you to know that the movie -- be it Michael Mann's project, JFK, Rosewood, Schindler's List, Malcolm X, or The People Vs. Larry Flynt -- plays fast and loose with the facts. They want to set things straight, so that we moronic moviegoers will not blindly accept the bald-faced lies and omissions in these terrible films.

Saner observers like Roger Ebert or David Denby point out that fact and drama are two different animals. Fact is compelling because of its thoroughness and its resistance to predictable narrative conventions. Drama absorbs us by compressing, refining, simplifying, structuring, bringing order out of the chaos of data. No one goes to Richard III expecting an even-handed, journalistic essay on the man. And though dramatizations tend to be neater and more homogenized than real, messy life (or lives), occasionally a great dramatist in film -- say, Welles with Citizen Kane -- takes the base, scandalous metal of a public life and forges a work of art. I suspect that William Randolph Hearst today is remembered more for having inspired the greatest American film than for his life or achievements, which you can read about in books, if you care to.

I mean, we go to drama for drama, whereas if we want just the facts, ma'am, we pocket our library card and head for the stacks. Saving Private Ryan is under no obligation to represent every factual angle of D-Day -- in fact, it has inspired many people to look up Citizen Soldiers and other such WWII books by Stephen Ambrose (a technical consultant on Ryan). Any factually-based movie makes people want to read more on the subject. Too idealistic of me to say that? No. I work in a library. Trust me on this. Half our WWII books are checked out.

Ebert has also acknowledged, though, that we bring closer scrutiny to any film on a subject we know intimately. If you are, let's say, a Web-site designer and along comes Point and Click, a comedy about Web-site designers, you will either (A) see it on opening day with your antennae quivering to catch any inaccuracies, or (B) boycott it entirely because you weren't asked to be a consultant on the film. (That's why directors bring in technical advisors -- not for accuracy's sake so much as to neutralize any possible detractors.)

I have to confess I do get tired of science-literate people kvetching about scientific blunders in sci-fi movies. Beyond the impossibility of time-travel and the idiocy of audible explosions in deep space (where there is no air, hence no sound), I know very little about all the inaccuracies in just about every sci-fi movie, and I'm just as happy not to know. Past a certain point, one does have to relinquish one's anal-retentive grip on textbook knowledge and allow for poetic or dramatic license. If the movie is bad, it's bad no matter how scrupulously it plays by factual rules. If the movie is good, ideally you're not going to be sitting there making a mental list of its factual flaws.

Most people, I think, are smart enough to know that movies distort facts. The Coens played that up in Fargo, which claimed to be a true story (it wasn't); the fact is, no movie claiming to be "a true story" is entirely true. I mean, shit, nobody can agree on what the truth is in real life; how is a movie going to be the definitive authority on anything? And if people are dumb enough to take a movie's word for it, they deserve to wallow in ignorance.

Hell, even documentaries manipulate facts to make their point. Remember the big fuss about how Michael Moore played around with the chronology of events in Roger & Me? To anyone who knows anything about documentary filmmaking, that whole debate was laughable. The minute you sit down with raw footage and assemble it, you impose a structure on it and therefore create your version of reality. Every decision you make -- which interviews to include, when to cut to this exterior shot or that close-up -- adds up to your take on the events. Which is finally all we have to go by: other people's take on the world. Which we can take or leave depending on our own experiences, prejudices, or preferences.

The same is true of any form of journalism -- objectivity is a nice concept, but a false one -- so I have to laugh when members of the press pounce on a movie, as if they've never manipulated facts while reporting a story. Reportage is manipulation. The folks at 60 Minutes should understand that better than anybody.

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