☞ This post is a follow-up of my previous post. As we have seen, Zero Dark Thirty has had its fair share of presentation on this site with regard to its sacrifice of truthfulness for the sake of cinematic storytelling. But it is not the only recent film, of course, which has been accused of lack of truthfulness or authenticity, as we saw with Spielberg’s Lincoln (and as we’ll see again below). And neither are such accusations limited to so-called “non-fictional films,” as Tarantino’s Django Unchained demonstrates. The problems with Zero Dark Thirty are not easy to leave aside (as my next post will show). Here is a discussion in Indiewire’s blog last month, before the Oscars, on three of the main “non-fictional” contenders’ deviations from what actually occurred. Of the triumvirate, Argo has been relatively unscathed on this site, which I will be correcting shortly. The question is not whether non-fictional films should completely sacrifice themselves at the altar of truthfulness, but the limits of factual deviations, and the tipping point where these these untruths would start to affect our aesthetic judgment. It does seem to be the case that especially in the case Zero Dark Thirty, some reviewers and commentators have found it difficult to have a positive aesthetic assessment of the film, as a result of its blatant factual inaccuracies.
“For months, screenwriter Tony Kushner has been considered a shoo-in for an Oscar. But the award-winning playwright with impeccable credentials — Angels in America, his 1993 play about AIDS, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award as well as half a dozen awards from drama critics — tripped, if not tumbled, last week.
To make the fight in Congress to pass the 13th amendment and end slavery in America more dramatic in “Lincoln,” Kushner changed the votes of two Connecticut congressmen from Yea to Nay. A current Connecticut congressman who could not believe that his state, which fought on the Union side in the Civil War, had voted to uphold slavery asked the Congressional Research Service to investigate. The answer: Kushner had rewritten history. And, with Academy members still voting, Kushner’s Oscar is no longer a sure thing.
Audiences understand that historical movies usually take historical license. “Argo,” “Lincoln’s” competitor for both Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, is based on a little known rescue of six American diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. But “Argo” is basically a thriller with chases and near misses and a fake movie crew, and nobody cares if characters were telescoped or dangers exaggerated.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” another best picture nominee that is also nominated for original screenplay, suggests that important information that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden was gained through torture. The United States political and military establishment vehemently disagrees. But, after the non-existent weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq war and the discovery that the CIA uses the simulated drowning called waterboarding, Americans take such government assurances with a whole tablespoon of salt. If “Zero Dark Thirty” lost Academy votes because of the controversy, it gained as much or more at the boxoffice from audiences who wanted to see what the fuss was about.”