Two NYRB essays on recent biopics and their issues with history
January 11, 2015 11:23 AM   Subscribe

 
Yeah, this is just a thing with biographical film screenplays. Authors feel like they need to invent a bunch of stuff, even if the character in question is perfectly interesting to begin with. On the extreme end of this you get Braveheart, which is the number one hatewatched movie by a certain kind of history buff.

Reality is really a lot more creative than authors tend to be, particularly screenwriters following a template.
posted by selfnoise at 11:43 AM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sometimes that's a reasonable creative decision, sometimes it feels like a line is being crossed. I really wasn't sure which side I was on with the Turing movie - certainly knowing how much was wrong with it was damaging to my enjoyment of it, but did that make it bad art? In the end I think it did because it was all just so unnecessary and generic, and so persistent - there really wasn't anything other than the major bulletpoints of his life that they hadn't messed with, and even some of those they'd screwed up.

Good acting, direction, sets etc... though.
posted by Artw at 11:48 AM on January 11, 2015


Previously.
posted by Artw at 11:51 AM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I knew the broad outlines of Turing's life simply from having studied computer science, and I liked the movie. I'm disappointed that it was so far from the truth, but it's nice that in truth he was actually even more awesome than he was portrayed.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:55 AM on January 11, 2015


See also: An Alan Turing expert answers your The Imitation Game questions. After previously having read about Alan Turing in The Code Book, I was a bit disappointed by the portrayal of him, and reading this article only heightened that. I enjoyed the movie overall, but it's...not accurate.
posted by limeonaire at 11:56 AM on January 11, 2015 [12 favorites]


I knew the broad outlines of Turing's life simply from having studied computer science, and I liked the movie. I'm disappointed that it was so far from the truth, but it's nice that in truth he was actually even more awesome than he was portrayed.

I've wasted a bunch of time watching Gamergate, and one of the central features seems to be that "gamer" identity is tied up with nerd outsider identity, and has helped to keep the whole thing rolling boil of hatred for people busting in on their personal sphere. I can't help but think that "nerdwashing" the images of important computer scientists helps to keep perceptions of the discipline as a haven for outsiders and antisocial types alive today.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:05 PM on January 11, 2015 [17 favorites]


Ugh. That's a horrible thought.
posted by Artw at 12:40 PM on January 11, 2015


I haven't seen Selma yet, but I really do wish the movie had been truer to real life about the relationship between LBJ and MLK which is absolutely fascinating. It says so much about the different roles that activists and elected officials play in democracy - King needed LBJ to get the bill on the floor, but LBJ needed King to create the political will to get it passed. It's a lesson progressives are just now re-learning with the Obama administration. But I guess a villain-hero narrative probably plays better on screen.

I've also heard that the project was originally supposed to be much more about LBJ as a hero of the Civil Rights movement, and the filmmaker rightfully basically said "screw that, there have been enough movies about white heroes."
posted by lunasol at 1:06 PM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


My huge disappointment with Selma was after DuVernay had a great line somewhere about how it was called "Selma," not "MLK"... it was pretty much the MLK show. David Oyelowo was fantastic, so I can see how you want to keep the camera on him, but to me it still ended up being about famous men we've already heard of--in particular, the vital role of the women of the Civil Rights movement is still critically neglected in the film.
posted by TwoStride at 1:21 PM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


"nerdwashing" the images of important computer scientists

The GamerGate analogy is certainly apt, but I think this problem is about more than just nerds and computing — it's the way the movie industry's (and the broader culture's) addiction to underdog stories leads to this weird kind of victors' history that requires the hero to be an underdog, including making him into one by sheer imaginative distortion if necessary, in order to validate him as a hero. As the critic Lawrence Rickels once put it, we love nothing better than to root for a winner, but only one who knows how to win like a loser. What makes The Imitation Game like "nerdwashing" is that it's invested in the same way of mythologizing power, concealing it under the appearance of marginality — and it's a good example of how easily this ideological drive, this predecided idea that there's only one kind of story, carries you straight into fabrication.
posted by RogerB at 1:32 PM on January 11, 2015 [16 favorites]


I can't help but think that "nerdwashing" the images of important computer scientists helps to keep perceptions of the discipline as a haven for outsiders and antisocial types alive today.

Interesting. I think I am more inclined to attribute that perception to the stereotyping of gamers as out of shape, basement-dwelling losers who still live with their parents by contemptuous non-gamers, though.

It is almost a point of pride among some parents I have known to brag about how little screen time of any kind they allow their kids because they are motivated by this very stereotypical negative perception.

Which is doubly odd when you consider that the members of some professions--accounting and engineering come to mind-- have a similar negative perception, too, as unfit anti-social types whose conversational skills are limited to spreadsheets and formulas. Yet, because these are now profitable professions, patents encourage their kids into these fields.

In conclusion, land of contrasts, etc.
posted by misha at 1:32 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Speaking of biographical films, tonight I finally get to see The Battle of the Five Armies (small town theaters are always a month behind) but I worry that it will deviate too far from Red Book of Westmarch.
posted by Ber at 1:39 PM on January 11, 2015 [7 favorites]


The Imitation Game was pure, unadulterated balderdash, plain and simple, a serious disrespect to Turing and his life's work, and the worst part is that the most grievous offense (Turing blackmailed into covering up Cairncross' espionage for the Russians) was created out of whole cloth because the scriptwriter's fucking Save The Cat timeline required an emotional downturn right about... now and that was the best they could come up with. Utterly shameful and deserving of no praise.
posted by Spatch at 2:33 PM on January 11, 2015 [17 favorites]


Most movies based on true events have a statement in the credits to the effect of some events were rearranged chronologically and some characters were invented for artistic purposes. Selma's adds that it isn't a documentary.
posted by brujita at 2:35 PM on January 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Imitation Game Is yet another example of the Hollywood requirement that anyone who isn't an English Major must be somewhere on the spectrum of autism.

The historical Turing was a fascinating character with a quirky sense of humor and an active sex life. The film could have shown him breaking codes by day and picking up rough trade in the clandestine gay bars of the city by night. That would have been far more interesting and watchable than the insulting invented treason plot.
posted by monotreme at 2:36 PM on January 11, 2015 [21 favorites]


it's the way the movie industry's (and the broader culture's) addiction to underdog stories leads to this weird kind of victors' history that requires the hero to be an underdog, including making him into one by sheer imaginative distortion if necessary, in order to validate him as a hero

Ohmygod. That is the perfect description of what HBO did to John Adams in their miniseries.
posted by Ndwright at 2:58 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Imitation Game was unadulterated trash. Hateful. I expected to get hung up on the technical stuff, but I can ride that out. But they were so huge and on so many levels... and furthermore, it (like Gravity) tripped my "People in that situation do not behave like that" circuitbreaker so hard that at least it stopped me worrying about all those synthetic plot twists.

Really, watch the trailer and read a book about Turing. You'll get all the digestible bits of the movie and some reality.
posted by Devonian at 3:10 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I want to make a movie about 9/11, with only one tower struck and taken down. And it's Nazis behind it. And when someone complains I'll say that it's not a documentary, after all: having two towers would have been expensive, and Nazis are a more interesting villain, and if you want to quibble over pointless details like how things actually happened then you should go read a book you fucking nerd.
posted by Palindromedary at 3:17 PM on January 11, 2015 [34 favorites]


You people seem to have this strange idea that movies are made for some reason other than selling tickets.

This ain't show friends, loser. This is show business.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:33 PM on January 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


That might be true, but Selma's director has been very defensive about her film's distortions. It'd cost her no business to own the alterations.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:38 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


And when someone complains I'll say that it's not a documentary, after all:

Actually, I have a feeling the complaints will be more along the nature of, "Why did the US government cover up the Nazi involvement in 9/11 and fabricate the existence of Tower 2? We want the truth!"
posted by FJT at 3:45 PM on January 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


You people seem to have this strange idea that movies are made for some reason other than selling tickets.
This ain't show friends, loser. This is show business.


That's an explanation, not a justification.
posted by srboisvert at 3:52 PM on January 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


DuVernay was on the PBS Newshour a few days ago and she was very smug about the whole thing, imo.
posted by homunculus at 3:55 PM on January 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


See also: An Alan Turing expert answers your The Imitation Game questions. After previously having read about Alan Turing in The Code Book, I was a bit disappointed by the portrayal of him, and reading this article only heightened that. I enjoyed the movie overall, but it's...not accurate.

This article does a horrible job of correcting inaccuracies in the movie, but is great at being arrogant and condescending. Semi-appropriate, given the subject here.
posted by dogwalker at 4:25 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


A couple of these essays demonstrate quite effectively why we don't let historians write screenplays.

Events are continually manipulated to keep the Adams family front and center. We see the militia, withdrawing from Bunker Hill, passing directly by Abigail Adams’s door; she sees the mutilated body of Joseph Warren drawn by in a cart. In reality, Bunker Hill was on the opposite side of Boston Harbor ....

Yes, but this is a visual storytelling medium. It is certain that Abigail Adams would have been emotionally affected by hearing of the events as she undoubtedly did, but it's quite another to convey the emotional impact by watching someone talk with someone else about it.

I haven't seen either of the films in the post, nor even John Adams, but I probably will eventually. But I've generally become much more forgiving of historical, oh, call them "smudges" like the Photoshop tool. The Alan Turing expert shows that he does mostly understand:

Sure I could write a list like that and pick apart all the anachronisms and confused chronology, but to that would be missing the point. By dramatising events not only does that make the story clearer and easier to understand, but it allows you to reach your audience on an emotional level – to make your audience care. And The Imitation Game will make you care. But at the same time, The Imitation Game dramatises events so far that it steps into misinformation.

Yes, it's bad if the movie distorts people's understanding of historical reality, but even if (as the John Adams HNN guy laments) it sparks the occasional brash Wikipedia mis-edit, I don't think it's something that's by any means a hard line, a Thou Shalt Not Trespass sort of thing. It's always going to be a thing where opinions sharply differ, even amongst those fully engaged in the creative endeavor.

But yes, even with non-playbook-influenced screenwriting, you want characters to embody viewpoints rather than talk about them, and you want characters to experience the emotional moments almost for the audience. So a lot of the time, even when you're devoted to accuracy, you are going to find yourself trying to find ways to do the smudging.
posted by dhartung at 4:54 PM on January 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


There’s Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing on which this film is based. It’s a bit of a tome, but thoroughly readable. This book more about the man than the maths, but when he gives you the gist of the idea, you know it’s an accurate gist.

I feel really bad for Andrew Hodges. He wrote a decent biography of Turing, (please read it if you are interested in Turing's life). I was really looking forward to seeing this film, but now that everyone that I've talked to says the screenwriter completely fucked it up, I'm just nah, thanks. Now Hodges has his name loosely attached to this cruddy thing, he must feel awful.
posted by ovvl at 4:56 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can't help but think that "nerdwashing" the images of important computer scientists helps to keep perceptions of the discipline as a haven for outsiders and antisocial types alive today.

It sounds like the film also "nerdwashes" -- or maybe it would be better to say "gamer-gatifies" -- the image of outsiders.

People aren't exactly wrong to claim Turing as an outsider. He was committing a crime every time he had sex (albeit blithely putting it out of his mind). Copeland, the other biographer Caryl cites, has described Turing as "a loner" who "loved to work alone", and "was bothered by his own social strangeness".

But the Turing didn't think of himself as an abject victim, or let his victimhood turn him into a traitor. The movie's changes transform Turing's suffering into a much better alibi (for the sort of white male nerd entitlement discussed previously).
posted by feral_goldfish at 5:00 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]



Events are continually manipulated to keep the Adams family front and center. We see the militia, withdrawing from Bunker Hill, passing directly by Abigail Adams’s door; she sees the mutilated body of Joseph Warren drawn by in a cart. In reality, Bunker Hill was on the opposite side of Boston Harbor


Contrast to the Imitation Game: (disclaimer: I've only seen the trailers, and don't intend to see the movie.)

It portrays Turing as an asshole.

Not only was Turing the diametric opposite of an asshole, an extremely congenial man, his congeniality was central to his successes. His ideas didn't spring from a vacuum. They also sprang from his ability to discuss them with the top notch minds who found him to be good company.

Abigail Adams really was distressed by the death of Joseph Warren. And it did affect her decisions afterwards. Having her see the body is an exaggeration, and nothing more.
posted by ocschwar at 5:09 PM on January 11, 2015 [9 favorites]


I think that was the major, major gripe I had with Imitation. It portrays Turing as a lone genius working on an incomprehensible gizmo to the mystification and distrust of all around.

The breaking of Enigma was thoroughly collegiate. These were mathematicians who are used to solving large problems with teamwork at all sorts of levels, and who were attacking the problem with every weapon they had. It wasn't a crossword puzzle to be solved in solitude with furrowed brow. All the way through the development of the bombe - a development of a Polish design - the mathematics were known and the probable effect of different aspects of the bombe's design known in advance. The damn things were built in a factory and when delivered, did more or less what they were expected to do (well, with the usual mechanical mishaps and learning).

There were plenty of personality conflicts and other battles at Bletchley, as you'd expect from a rich class of highly intelligent, highly individual minds thrown together in a quasi-military setting under conditions of great pressure. You get none of that from the movie, which is by-the-numbers nerdsploitation Hollywood Oscar bait.

It traduces a time, a place and a man I care passionately about. I don't think you can tell Turing's story through Enigma - but if you can, you can't do it like this.

Grrr/
posted by Devonian at 5:35 PM on January 11, 2015 [16 favorites]


I have absolutely no problem with a movie about the black experience in Civil Rights underplaying the role of white people. Historical movies make changes to characters to enhance dramatic effect or tell a better story All The Time. Movies about civil rights and the struggles of Black people (broadly speaking) foreground white characters All The Time. Selma just does it (slightly) in a different direction than we're used to. I'm sure the story of LBJ and the passage of the Voting Rights Act is very interesting, but Selma is not the movie which is telling it. Selma is telling a different story and privileges different pieces of history.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:39 PM on January 11, 2015 [7 favorites]


I have absolutely no problem with a movie about the black experience in Civil Rights underplaying the role of white people.

"Underplaying" isn't the same as making a villain out of a white person that didn't exist. It's one thing to downplay LBJ's role, it's another thing to rewrite his character.
posted by Going To Maine at 5:42 PM on January 11, 2015 [8 favorites]


I had the same negative reaction, after the fact, to the TV series Manhattan. Husband and I were so excited about this show! We couldn't wait to learn about all the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project! And we binge watched the show and even enjoyed it. Looked forward to the second season.

But the story seemed so crazy in just that first season that, my interest piqued, I did some actual research and realized that the series developers made absolutely no attempt to be historically accurate. In fact, they used the confidentiality surrounding the atomic program as an excuse to go crazy with fictitious back stories.

These included [MANHATTAN 1ST SEASON SPOILERS BELOW!]
.
.
.
.

A power-mad, ego driven project leader who treats his coworkers like dirt, never talks to his wife and cheats on her with their itinerant Mexican maid (with whom he shares state secrets), but also keeps a mental running tally of all the soldiers lost in the war because he's really a big old softy and a true-blue patriot;
a lesbian love triangle between the oh-so-cosmopolitan French wife of a swinging scientist and the wife of a deeply misunderstood young genius battling classism because his wife's family is so rich it is a terrible hardship to them both. The former woman conveniently forgets she and her husband have a son together so she can negligently run off and have hot lesbian sex instead of taking care of her child (because apparently denying the existence of children is a lesbian thing, who knew?), but thankfully reverts to being a wholesome heterosexual wife and mother again upon seeing someone else's kids and remembering, OH SHIT I HAS A SON, said epiphany conveniently occurring just in time for her to frame her French lover for espionage and help her husband get a promotion.
a Chinese scientist with a gravely ill daughter wrongly accused of selling secrets to the enemy, who is shot dead by The WWII equivalent of Kenneth from 30 Rock while attempting to escape torture and interrogation and then posthumously framed for espionage by the military anyway.
and an English scientist who, impersonating a noble, impregnated a rival scientist's innocent daughter and then fled the country to avoid a shotgun marriage but totally falls for his smart female scientist colleague and, with the most progressively feminist proposal ever, asks for her hand in marriage but gets turned down flat because (prepare yourself dfor delicious irony) she just wants to be FWB.
.
.
.
.
[END MANHATTAN SPOILERS]

The only characters based on real people were Neils Bohr, General Lesley Groves and Oppenheimer, and even Oppenheimer was stupidly transformed from a charismatic, complicated man with interesting ties to the Communist party into a fastidious and standoffish eccentric with little to no involvement in the scientific process as a whole and no interest in his colleagues, with strong overtones of being on the autistic spectrum. Because scientist. AAAARRGH!

I cannot overemphasize how incredibly disappointing that process of disillusionment was for us. Here we have the perfect story: the history of extraordinary scientific endeavor set amidst the horrors of war; the race to create the ultimate weapon--a device so horrific that once constructed its very existence would certainly end war as we know it (though it would never be deployed, of course, as actually unleashing that destructive power upon the world was morally indefensible!); a storyline peopled by the greatest scientific minds of their time (and perhaps of all time) gathered together under one roof literally in the middle of nowhere. The whole operation, meanwhile, backed by a blank check from the US government, conducted under impossible time constraints and the very real, constant threat of international espionage!

And the developers of Manhattan, with this great gift dropped into their lap, look over this extraordinary largesse, wrinkle up their noses and proclaim, "Nah, that's not exciting enough, let's just make shit up."

I can't even.
posted by misha at 5:55 PM on January 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


LBJ is not a villain in Selma. he is a politician caught between many pulls, some moral, some practical, some political. he is not given a heroic roll but that is hardly villainous. Not an enemy of the protesters but not prioritizing their goals. i think it is a fine depiction of a powerful privileged man with an impulse to help those oppressed by the society he leads. he is even given some heroic moments telling off Wallace and speaking before congress. The film is told from the perspective of the protesters so you cant expect it to beatify anyone unwilling to join them in the street.
posted by subtle_squid at 5:58 PM on January 11, 2015 [14 favorites]



The Imitation Game was unadulterated trash. Hateful. I expected to get hung up on the technical stuff, but I can ride that out.


Why should we keep standards low on that? Have you seen The Social Network? The script writers were aided by the copious court documentation, and were "aided" by the threat of litigation if they got things wrong, but the opening scene was absolutely brilliant. It gets every technical detail right about what Zuckerberg did that night in his dorm room, it uses visual representations to present those details effectively, and tops it off with a brief dialogue making very clear why Zuckerberg's actions were obnoxious and misogynistic,.

What drives me even angrier is that the Imitiation Game could have shown Turing and his coworkers wrestling with the abstractions they were up against. A recent show in Britain has its star constantly represented as wrestling with abstract details it represents with visual effects. That is, Sherlock, starring wossname, Bandicoot Cumberbunny. Same bloke who plays Turing in this one, isn't it?

It is feasible to make a good movie featuring an Alan Turing who actually existed. Shame this movie didn't do it.
posted by ocschwar at 5:59 PM on January 11, 2015


The best response to this film is ignore it, read a Turing biography (as others have suggested) and go and teach some children to code. While you're there, teach them about Ada King and Grace Hopper, without whom we would all still be writing in weird squiggly symbols that make no sense.

YES, I AM LOOKING AT YOU, APL.
posted by nfalkner at 6:02 PM on January 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


misha, I don't know if that summary of such a terribly wasted opportunity broke my brain or my heart first but both were lying in pieces by the end.
posted by nfalkner at 6:06 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


The best response to this film is ignore it, read a Turing biography (as others have suggested) and go and teach some children to code.

Or you could watch it as a starting point (knowing very little about Turing's life) and then stay up half the night reading about him with complete and utter fascination. Like I did.
posted by mochapickle at 6:20 PM on January 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


I have similar feelings of ire and contempt in response to biopics about great artists and musicians. No light is ever cast on their genius or their accomplishments or their processes. A bunch of junkies, drunks, deviants and divas.
posted by Jode at 6:29 PM on January 11, 2015


If you really want to watch a good Turing biography—ie not Imitation Game—try BBC's The Strange Life and Death of Alan Turing.

1992 and still it features actual people who actually knew Turing and worked alongside him. Plus: The homosex is played up better.
posted by Mike Mongo at 6:40 PM on January 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


When I watch biopics or other historical films, I go through two stages: 1) rage (WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO THE FACTS OMG) and, having got that out of my system, 2) analysis (granted that they've screwed up the facts, what are they trying to argue?). Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single biopic that qualifies as "accurate," even when, like The Madness of King George, they're scripted by a trained historian. Biopics are usually more about us than about them--what do we need this era to be at our particular moment in time? What are the stories we want to tell ourselves about scientists/soldiers/politicians/monarchs/whatever?
posted by thomas j wise at 7:08 PM on January 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


Speaking of biographical films, tonight I finally get to see The Battle of the Five Armies (small town theaters are always a month behind) but I worry that it will deviate too far from Red Book of Westmarch.

As the inestimable Dildo Biggins said:

"Full moon calls thee--
Shai-hulud shall thou see;
Red the night, dusky sky,
Bloody death didst thou die.
We pray to a moon: she is round--
Luck with us will then abound,
What we seek for shall be found
In the land of solid ground.”
posted by ennui.bz at 9:08 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


When I saw a preview for Imitation Game in the theater, I turned to my computer history loving partner and tut-tutted when they showed Bombe with text about something about building the world's first computer. I later took to Twitter to complain, asking if they were confused about Colossus (which isn't always considered a computer) or Manchester Baby (which is definitely a computer).

Cut to Christmas Eve and my partner's sister is telling us about how great the film is because the story is so much from the heart. I told her I couldn't handle the inaccuracies because they tried to say Bombe was a computer. She had no idea what I was talking about. "The computer was named after Christopher, his true love." Just that detail turned me off watching the film because I know I'm not the target audience.
posted by kendrak at 9:22 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


He builds a robot called Christiopher and a bad dad figure tries to smash it up. It's pretty close to parody really.
posted by Artw at 9:31 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've been avoiding Manhattan because I just know it will piss me off.
posted by Artw at 9:33 PM on January 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


Continue avoiding it. If you can't resist, watch about two episodes and you will realize it is both bad and boring, and feel not one whit of regret for never finishing it. Like I did.
posted by axiom at 10:16 PM on January 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


I pretty much bailed on Masters of Sex when I found out a major character who was too good to be true was too good to be true.
posted by Artw at 10:27 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


OK wait.. but hasn't the thing been, since the dawn of bio-pics.. that you see the movie, and then you become interested, and then you go and EDUCATE YOURSELF as to the reality and the facts? Whether or not the movie makes up some total bullshit, no bio-pic has ever been "100% ACCURATE", just like every film adaptation from 'A Clockwork Orange' to 'Misery' to 'No Country For Old Men' has not followed the novel to the letter. Yes those novels are fiction, and bio-pics are based on true stories, but that's why all these movies say they are BASED on true stories. Hey, "The Imitation Game" was a formulaic Hollywood biopic with nice photography, good acting, etc. It was a manipulative and bloated drama with every plot-point meticulously crafted according to the time-tested rules. Even the stupid line that I don't remember but basically said "The person/idea you least expect is the thing that will save the day." is repeated exactly three times at the three critical moments in the film, and the introduction of tension, and the budding non-romance, and on and on. Were people this pissed off about 'Amadeus'??

Amazing, one-of-a-kind human who changed the world has a big Hollywood film created about their life which is not accurate but which might inspire a few people to go and read up about real history. Wow, I guess I'd rather watch a concert documentary about Iggy Azalea! Nothing fake about that!
posted by ReeMonster at 10:52 PM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


And, to be even clearer.. for the people who expect bio-pics/bio-tv-shows to be 100% accurate... you really want that one little stupid film/show to be the DEFINITIVE educational resource and be-all-end-all representation of whatever person's life? Just chew your popcorn and have a blast.
posted by ReeMonster at 10:58 PM on January 11, 2015


We'll, I want to at least feel like people are trying, really.
posted by Artw at 11:33 PM on January 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


hasn't the thing been, since the dawn of bio-pics.. that you see the movie, and then you become interested, and then you go and EDUCATE YOURSELF as to the reality and the facts? Whether or not the movie makes up some total bullshit

By this metric, have you heard about the stunning biopic Inglorious Basterds, perchance?
posted by CrystalDave at 2:01 AM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Just repeating the fact that the LBJ character is in no way a villain in the Selma movie-- he passes the Voting Rights Act and dresses down Wallace. there are distortions, I think, in the service of dramatizing the big P Political drama of "waiting" vs "not waiting." LBJ is the hero of that drama.

The criticisms say that LBJ wasn t portrayed heroically enough.

Perhaps people find the drama of movement politics more engrossing and relatable than washington politics? What do critics think of "Eyes on the Prize," then? there s hardly any mention of LBJ in the source documentary.
posted by eustatic at 6:11 AM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


So, not having seen the film, let me ask: would you agree with these two sentences from the Selma essay:

"The film suggests that there was a struggle between King and Johnson over whether [the Voting Rights Act] should be pushed following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July of that year. The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King."
posted by Going To Maine at 6:58 AM on January 12, 2015


I'm not familiar with Turing aside from the most broad of outlines, but I am familiar with the conventions of Hollywood biopics. Simply from that experience, it wasn't difficult to spot what was probably fabrication and what was real. The Imitation Game is a standard Hollywood biopic template, "outsider genius is right all along, eventually everyone sees that though he is martyred," with the Turing story layered on top of it as feasible.

I hate this template. It's a stainless steel buffet steam tray filled with pandering bullshit, served all-you-can-eat. Grab a ladle.

Turing is presented as The Only Guy Who Gets It. Characters are placed in his way, none of whom Get It, all of whom oppose him for various reasons -- jealousy, stupidity, pride, etc. Each and every time, he overcomes them, leaving them in awe of his Awesomeness and Rectitude.

We, gifted with the perspective of the modern world, get to be The People Who Get It and share in the outrage at the closed-mindedness and stupidity of everyone not Our Hero. Finally, at the end, we get the big speech about how You Were Right All Along, etc., etc. We get to feel noble because we saw his greatness and rectitude all along.

The template stokes outrage and lets us wallow in feelings of being unappreciated, then gives us the manufactured triumph that tells us all what we all wish we could hear once in our lives: "we were wrong about you, you were right all along, yay you." Then the hero is martyred, so we can also get that twinge of sadness.

[Also see A Man for All Seasons. Or better yet, don't.]

Biopics love this template.

So awful.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:23 AM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also see A Man for All Seasons. Or better yet, don't.

The 1966 film?
posted by Artw at 7:42 AM on January 12, 2015


Also see A Man for All Seasons. Or better yet, don't.

The 1966 film?


Yep. A load of insufferable, pandering crap masquerading as history. Designed explicitly to stoke feelings of outrage and superiority in the audience. Beautifully directed, wonderfully acted, and so pandering I wanted to take a shovel to Paul Scofield's head. It's one of the greatest movies ever made for people who like to think they're misunderstood geniuses or possessed of superior moral insight than everyone else.

As the internet tradition has it, your mileage may vary. My tolerance for that biopic template is far less than that of most people.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:53 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Going To Maine,

Selma does depict "a struggle between King and Johnson over whether [the Voting Rights Act] should be pushed" but the struggle is over timing. Johnson wants to prioritize poverty but king doesn't think voting rights should have to wait.
posted by subtle_squid at 7:59 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, not having seen the film, let me ask: would you agree with these two sentences from the Selma essay:

The film suggests that there was a struggle between King and Johnson over whether [the Voting Rights Act] should be pushed following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July of that year. The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King.


No. In the film, Johnson is in favor of the voting rights bill. But he wants to delay action on it, perhaps for a year. The suggestion is that change in the South is happening too quickly for political expedience — and Johnson points out that much of the South is still segregated, suggesting that work needs to be done to enforce the existing civil rights laws before more legislation is enacted. "Let's not start another battle when we haven't even won the first," he says. "The next battle should be the eradication of poverty. It's a matter of political priorities.... This voting thing's just gonna have to wait."

And then: "This administration is going to set this aside for a while. Just for a while, you understand."

Later, when he suspects that King is strategically working to force him to accelerate the process, he insists again: "I can't do that this year. I won't. I told you." Never is Johnson shown to be "opposed to a voting rights bill, period." What he resents is the idea that his administration is being manipulated strategically by King's camp — and those machinations are of course the real subject of the film. Which is terrific.
posted by Mothlight at 8:08 AM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


By this metric, have you heard about the stunning biopic Inglorious Basterds, perchance?

That's fiction/satire which toys with history.
posted by ReeMonster at 8:59 AM on January 12, 2015


f you can't resist, watch about two episodes and you will realize it is both bad and boring, and feel not one whit of regret for never finishing it.

That's the key. I think most people care more about whether a biopic or TV show is good and engaging, and then if it's accurate. Goodfellas has been out for 25 years and nearly nobody talks about the inaccuracies of the film. They talk about the great acting, the Copacabana oner, the cinematography, etc.
posted by FJT at 9:01 AM on January 12, 2015


Just repeating the fact that the LBJ character is in no way a villain in the Selma movie

That's not true. The clear implication that LBJ gave the OK for J. Edgar Hoover to send the audio tape of MLK having sex with other women to Coretta is pretty damn villainous. Historian David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, hadn't seen the movie yet but told the NYT in this detailed article about the dispute, "If the movie suggests L.B.J. had anything to do with the tape, that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against L.B.J."

I saw the movie yesterday. It clearly suggests that very thing.

Given the shocking fact that this is the first major studio film about King, ever, I think DuVernay's decision to focus on black contributions makes sense (though I agree with TwoStride's comment above that the film could have done more to give women aside from Coretta more of a role). Her anger at former LBJ aide Joseph Califano's claim in the Washington Post that "Selma was LBJ's idea" - based on a telephone conversation where LBJ tells King to find the worst place he can to challenge the law - is understandable, too. For what it's worth, Garrow disagrees that Selma was LBJ's idea, and Elizabeth Drew covers this nicely in the 2nd link in the post - "King, working with other civil rights organizations, may have already been considering Selma, but that doesn’t belie what Johnson said."

But while LBJ was painted as a fairly complex character under different pressures than MLK, and given redemption in the end, DuVernay also deliberately changed LBJ's character for the worse to make the drama between them more simplistic and obvious, at times distorting the real history so much it's completely understandable that folks who knew or have studied LBJ would find it deeply obnoxious. I don't see how anyone can argue with that.
posted by mediareport at 10:14 AM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Counterpoint from Jim Naureckas of FAIR: It's Critics of Selma Who Are Distorting Civil Rights History
posted by RogerB at 10:23 AM on January 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


Outstanding post, Going to Maine; these two essays I think really show the limitations of the Hollywood method when it tries to deal with real life.

On one hand, Dhartung seems to be making a fair point when he says that we cannot let historians write hollywood scripts; they don't "get" dramatic tension, etc. But the gigantic falsities that these two scripts introduce into their central characters (Johnson didn't want to pass a Voting Rights Act? Turing betrayed his country to conceal his homosexuality?) are not just innocent bits of dramatic tension, they are vast lies which smear their subjects while the films represent themselves as passing along broad historical truth.

And there are of course ways for non-lazy screenwriters to write stories that remain true to the facts without inventing falsehoods about their characters. The Turing film sounds like a particularly egregious and disgusting example of screenwriters jamming a real personality into a bland and cliched cinematic archetype.

Finally, Dhartung and others should abandon the idea that historians are not concerned with narrative and dramatic tension. Gabriel Piterburg has written excellent essays on the way historians necessarily impose a dramatic narrative on history, which of course is nothing but a collection of nonsensical and unrelated facts until a historian comes along and makes up a story about it.
posted by jackbrown at 10:35 AM on January 12, 2015


That FAIR piece is good, and this link to the taped conversation with LBJ teling Bill Moyers "He better get to behaving himself or all of them are going to be put in jail" is worth following. But Naureckas does fudge on the stuff about Hoover:

[Johnson's chief assistant] Jenkins was of the opinion that the FBI could perform a good service to the country if this matter could somehow be confidentially given to members of the press.

That suggestion (not acted upon, as far as I know) is nowhere near to what the movie showed: LBJ telling Hoover to send the sex tape to Coretta King to undermind MLK from within his own home.
posted by mediareport at 10:44 AM on January 12, 2015


LBJ telling Hoover to send the sex tape to Coretta King to undermind MLK from within his own home.

I will go back to my original assumption -as derived from the trailer- that the movie portrays LBJ as a villain.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:17 AM on January 12, 2015


It's more complex than that, really.
posted by mediareport at 11:21 AM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, I do believe that it's a complex portrayal - films don't get usually get such plaudits otherwise. But that's a pretty darn heinous act, and it's the sort of thing that takes a character from a shade of grey into black.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:24 AM on January 12, 2015


I will go back to my original assumption -as derived from the trailer- that the movie portrays LBJ as a villain.

Or you could, you know, go see the movie and have an informed opinion about it. I'm not saying you're wrong, or that your opinion would necessarily change. But it's fundamentally unfair to a movie — to the directors, to the performers, and to all of the creative individuals involved in its making — to draw conclusions about it based on a freaking trailer.
posted by Mothlight at 1:11 PM on January 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


Wow, was I wrong about this:

"[Johnson's chief assistant] Jenkins was of the opinion that the FBI could perform a good service to the country if this matter could somehow be confidentially given to members of the press."

That suggestion (not acted upon, as far as I know)...


Turns out it was acted upon. A lot. according to chapter 9, "Hoover Attacks," in Nick Kotz' book Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King JR., and the Laws That Changed America, Hoover shopped around the evidence of MLK's affairs to all sorts of folks, giving it to many news outlets as well as to liberal churches and other groups affiliated with the civil rights struggle. All of the media outlets refused to cover the story, but they also refused to tell MLK who in the FBI was providing the info, so it went nowhere. But it did deeply disturb and depress King.

There is also a footnote on page 234, in a discussion of Johnson aide Bill Moyers giving the go-ahead to Hoover to share his findings with other government officials, that says:

Ten months earlier, acting through [former aide] Walter Jenkins, Johnson had given Hoover permission to disseminate secretly to the news media accounts of what the FBI had recorded during the January 7, 1964 party in King's suite at Washington's Willard Hotel.

Unlike other citations in the body of the text, there's no source for that footnoted claim, but it's there. So while LBJ didn't authorize the sending of the sex tape to MLK's office, where it eventually reached Coretta (that happened in November 1964, before the Selma campaign ramped up in early January) at least one authoritative source claims he did give the go-ahead to Hoover to start sharing the sex tape with the press.

Which, at this point, with my limited reading so far, seems to put the movie's treatment of LBJ and Hoover on much more defensible "we just moved the timeline around to make the movie work" ground, and makes more questionable historian David Garrow's claim that "If the movie suggests L.B.J. had anything to do with the tape, that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against L.B.J."

I retract my previous statement the movie's treatment of LBJ and the sex tape is unusually villainous, pending further reading. I'm very curious to find out more. And btw, I just dove into the middle of Kotz' book this afternoon while doing laundry, but so far every page has been completely fascinating.
posted by mediareport at 3:27 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


One more thing: Both Kotz' book and David Garrow's Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offer a ton of evidence clearly refuting former Johnson aide Joseph Califano's ridiculous claim in the Washington Post last month that "In fact, Selma was LBJ's idea."

The phone conversation Califano uses as evidence happened on January 15th. Guess where MLK was when he took that phone call? According to page 250 in Kotz' book, MLK was already in Selma, where he answered the phone. The idea to ramp up the campaign had been decided before that January 15th phone call; David Garrow describes a December 28th meeting in Montgomery where the strategy of provoking arrests in Selma is debated at length. That makes the statement from Elizabeth Drew I liked above - "King, working with other civil rights organizations, may have already been considering Selma, but that doesn’t belie what Johnson said" - not as nice as I thought. She didn't go far enough; the evidence that King and other activists had already decided on an energetic Selma protest, without that oh-so-helpful input from the Great White President, is clear and unequivocal.

That LBJ had access to often-daily reports of MLK's phone calls might better explain why he suggested something so amenable to MLK in that January 15th phone call. But Califano's strongest claim in one of the widely dispersed articles that sparked most of the criticism - "In fact, Selma was LBJ's idea" - is fairly easily dismissed as nonsense.

Which does say something about the rest of Califano's diatribe.
posted by mediareport at 3:50 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hum. Some very interesting wrinkles, there.

Or you could, you know, go see the movie and have an informed opinion about it. I'm not saying you're wrong, or that your opinion would necessarily change. But it's fundamentally unfair to a movie — to the directors, to the performers, and to all of the creative individuals involved in its making — to draw conclusions about it based on a freaking trailer.

That's fair, but I don't think it's unfair to draw conclusions based on a combination of trailer, news articles, and public debate. I mean, I'd sooner reserve my dollars so that I can vote with them.
posted by Going To Maine at 4:13 PM on January 12, 2015


misha's anti-Manhattan rant has officially made me decide to forego and to instead invest the time I spend watching bad historical adaptations on Marco Polo, instead. I hope this was the right decision.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:34 AM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's fair, but I don't think it's unfair to draw conclusions based on a combination of trailer, news articles, and public debate.

With respect, I think it is absolutely unfair. It's a pet peeve of mine, so I hope it's not too obnoxious that I'm singling you out. It annoyed me when so many people had an opinion on Zero Dark Thirty without seeing it, too. But Selma isn't really about LBJ, and seeing the film makes that clear. It's about strategy, and about protest as a tactic to effect change. It's so good.

I mean, I'd sooner reserve my dollars so that I can vote with them.

If you're interested in supporting film as a politically meaningful medium, I can't think of a 2014 film that's more deserving of your dollars.
posted by Mothlight at 8:18 AM on January 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's fine if you want to single me out about this, but I don't happen to agree or think that you're going to change my mind. I mean, commenting on movies is kind of a Catch-22. You read a bunch of criticism by folks you agree with that suggests a film is flawed, making you not want to see it, but then get told that you can't think the movie is flawed because you haven't seen it.

I'd hardly say that I've set my opinions in stone or anything - I'd like to think that I'm just trying to find out more about the movie, and I've certainly done so; I certainly hope that I'm not claiming expertise on the film's content without seeing it. If I have, then that's on me, and I'm sorry. I suppose I could steal a copy of Selma, watch it, and mail the studio $20 if I like it, but that isn't exactly a legitimate approach either. At the moment, I'd rather keep both my money and my two hours.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:46 AM on January 13, 2015


I mean, commenting on movies is kind of a Catch-22. You read a bunch of criticism by folks you agree with that suggests a film is flawed, making you not want to see it, but then get told that you can't think the movie is flawed because you haven't seen it.

I don't have any problems with what you think. You can think whatever/however you want. But once you start sharing your thoughts, it gets kind of disrespectful to the creators. You're confusing having an opinion with sharing an opinion. Not sure where the Catch-22 comes in. Haven't seen it? Why bother commenting about it?

At the moment, I'd rather keep both my money and my two hours.

And yet, you have some time to spend reading about the movie and thinking about the movie and commenting about the movie. Stick with the money thing.
posted by dogwalker at 9:55 AM on January 13, 2015


Yeah, to be clear, I think you're doing yourself a disservice by not seeing the film. Given your apparent interest in the historical struggle it portrays, accurately or inaccurately, it seems like you'd want to have an informed opinion on what's likely to be the most widely celebrated film treatment of the civil rights era for some years to come. But that's your prerogative.

What rankles is when you say stuff like, "Selma's director has been very defensive about her film's distortions" before admitting that, you know, you haven't actually seen the film. I care because I think it's a really fine film and it's not doing great box office as yet and I'd like for as many people to see it as possible to make it a success and give its director the chance to do something even more interesting next time around. I think claims that the film stomps all over LBJ's legacy are overblown though I'll admit that he is portrayed as an exemplar of white American privilege and thus, at least in part, an adversary. That's a fair topic for discussion, but I don't think it makes sense for that discussion to take place among people who haven't seen the film. There is nuance. There is subtlety. Some of it has to do with Tom Wilkinson's performance, which is a little more cartoonish than I'd like. There is plenty to talk about, and reasonable people will draw different conclusions about whether the film is accurate enough in depicting the relationship between King and Johnson. But there's so much else going on in the film that the whole controversy strikes me as an unfortunate sideshow.

In the larger sense, I find all this attention paid to "historical inaccuracies," as if that's the most important aspect of a narrative film, to reveal a depressingly literal-minded approach to film watching. Selma, for instance, seems to take place in the present day, sending weird tendrils through space and time that connect 1960s Alabama with present-day Ferguson and Staten Island. It's a piece of activist drama about the opportunity for thoughtful, organized, and nonviolent protest to effect necessary change in the world in the face of recalcitrant bureaucracy. Complaining that a story about the American Civil Rights movement might give the old guy in the Oval Office short shrift by painting him a few shades more villainous than he may have deserved strikes me as oddly akin to those spurious cries of "reverse racism" you hear every so often from aggrieved white people. Of course the film privileges black voices; in a Hollywood with a history of making movies about race and the struggle against racism that cast a white person as the protagonist (see Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom, The Blind Side, The Help and more), Selma is a goddamned affirmative action initiative. If it means LBJ gets his toes stepped on a little, I'm OK with that.

Finally, I got some satisfaction from the item in Elizabeth Drew's Wikipedia entry, linked in the FPP, about a former Nixon aide who said Drew made claims about that president (that he was an alcoholic and also addicted to Dilantin) that were "as untrue as they [were] ugly." I guess what goes around really does come around!
posted by Mothlight at 11:06 AM on January 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


(Saw Selma last night; it was fantastic.)
posted by kaibutsu at 4:47 PM on January 13, 2015








I'm so agog at the lack of nominations. It's such a loud absence in the nominations.

I also feel sorry for those nominated for best actor and best director: their win will be hollow, without them competing against Oyelowo and DuVernay.
posted by meese at 4:19 PM on January 16, 2015


Bill Moyers on LBJ and ‘Selma’
posted by homunculus at 1:44 PM on January 17, 2015


So, I watched Selma last night, FWIW, and didn't get the same sence of history being reweaved into Hollywood material from it as I did with Immitation Game at all - minor changes for dramatic purposes are not quite the same thing.

(Though it's true that unlike Turing LBH is not someone I really care about one way or another, which might be a factor in how I feel about it.)
posted by Artw at 8:54 AM on January 18, 2015




Mark Harris's latest piece defending Selma for Grantland is really good, one of the best things I've read about the film.

It is, I think, profoundly sad that a movie that focuses so intelligently and specifically on King not as a martyr or plaster saint but as a brilliant tactician should have occasioned less discussion about him than about a president who was — in both the movie and in this specific chapter of the struggle it depicts — a supporting character. The rush to defend Johnson’s reputation is, among other things, a way of not talking about King, and the need to sternly repudiate a movie that does not enshrine LBJ speaks volumes about who gets to do the talking and who is, even today, still viewed as an interloper.

How Selma Got Smeared: On historical drama and its malcontents
posted by Mothlight at 11:28 AM on January 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sam Tanenhaus in The New Yorker: “Selma” vs. “Selma”
posted by Going To Maine at 6:16 PM on January 28, 2015


Darryl Pinckney's Selma review in the NYRB: Some Different Ways of Looking at Selma
posted by Going To Maine at 3:13 PM on February 8, 2015


« Older To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This   |   He was just a giant tortoise, the last one of his... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments