Recently, Sam Adams wrote an essay for Criticwire titled “Please Kill the Expert Review: A Modest Proposal”. Gabriel Valdez of Wednesday Collective called the article to my attention by kindly offering me as an example of an expert review done right (thanks for the compliment, Gabriel!). The article made me think about what I do on this blog and why, so I thought that instead of discussing a specific film for today’s post, I’d share a few of my reactions to Adam’s piece. If you haven’t read it, hop over to Criticwire and read it; it’s not very long.
In the essay, Adams takes issue with what he calls Expert Reviews, such as “What ‘Noah’ Gets Wrong About the Bible” and “What ‘House of Cards’ Gets Wrong about Money in Politics”. He objects to the Expert Review because it is often “a half-step up from the goof-squad niggling of cinematic and televisual trainspotters who derive a puny sense of superiority by pointing out that a license plate has the wrong prefix or that particular style of telephone wasn’t available until the following year.” In other words, these reviews aren’t much better than the ‘Goofs’ notes in an IMBD entry. (Did you know that in Captain American: The Winter Soldier you can see highway signs for Cleveland on highways that are supposed to be in Washington DC?)
Adams then discusses Silicon Valley in specific, and argues that as a work of satire it is not meant to be realistic. By this, he seems to mean that any factual errors or misrepresentations of how tech start-ups actually operate aren’t important because the series is not really about Silicon Valley. What it’s really about he doesn’t tell us. He argues that while details can enrich the world of a fictional movie or tv show, what matters most is the story and that when the story and the facts conflict, the story ought to win out. Small errors in shows like “The Good Wife” or films like The Wolf of Wall Street are unimportant because, as Adams puts it, “drama is life with the distractions pared away.”
To some extent, I think Adams is right. The scriptwriters of tv shows and movies need to have the creative freedom to tell the story they want to tell, and sometimes historical facts get in the way. If James Goldman had scrupulously adhered to historical facts, he probably couldn’t have written The Lion in Winter because several of the events depicted in the film had already happened before the start of the film. I’m not so much of an historical purist that I will get upset if small details are wrong, such as when Shakespeare has one of the characters in Julius Caesar says that “the clock hath stricken three”, even though clocks won’t be invented for about a thousand years. He’s frickin’ Shakespeare! Who am I to tell him how to write his plays? And a small error like that doesn’t affect the story he’s telling in any significant way.
Adams’ essay also points out that one problem with the Expert Review is that the reviewer often isn’t an expert. He or she is just some person doing a few minutes’ worth of internet research before writing an article that might be little better than click-bait.
But there are a few problems with Adams’ argument. Sometimes a lack of historical accuracy renders a film’s plot problematic. 300’s depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae is so wildly wrong, it renders the entire story incoherent and transforms Leonidas from a brave general to a raging moron. Zach Snyder apparently didn’t bother reflecting on how the historical inaccuracies rendered his version of the story nonsensical.
But historical train-wrecks of the magnitude of 300 aren’t that common (although I have a decent supply of them for this blog). More seriously, Adams’ argument fails to take into consideration the effect that movies and tv shows have on a viewer’s perception of the facts. Television and film are not just momentary distractions any more than a bottle of Coke is just a momentary distraction; both have lasting effects on the person who consumes them, often in ways the consumer isn’t fully aware of. Movies and tv shows shape the viewer’s notion of what the world around them is like and how they think history played out. I have a good friend who is an assistant district attorney, and she has mentioned a number of times how juries increasingly view a lack of DNA evidence as evidence that the government’s case is weak largely because shows like CSI place such a heavy emphasis on DNA evidence as proof of guilt or innocent. In reality, DNA evidence is often unnecessary to prove someone’s guilt, and running DNA tests is expensive and time-consuming. In the American legal system, the standard of guilt is reasonable doubt, but shows like CSI are changing what reasonable doubt means to average citizens, which raises the government’s burden of proof.
Similarly, I’ve long thought that the various crime and legal dramas on current American television are tending to lead viewers to think that over-zealous prosecution is a good thing, since on these shows, the government characters are always acting from good motives and the people they are pursuing are always the criminals. So the message of these shows is that we should allow law enforcement and prosecutors to bend or break laws, because in the end, their motives are good and it only hurts the bad guys. The legal system is often presented as an obstacle to justice, not a tool to achieve it. In all the years of Law and Order that I watched, I only once saw the show address the possibility of an innocent man being convicted and sent to prison. Usually Jack McCoy unravels the truth before the sentence is handed down.
Moving to the realm of historical film, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, often identified as the most historically inaccurate film Hollywood has ever made (although 300 gives it good competition, I think), has been credited with having a very substantial impact on Scottish politics in the mid-1990s. It was released in 1995, and two years later Scotland overwhelmingly voted in favor of a proposal to establish a Scottish Parliament. It has been credited with significantly encouraging Scottish nationalism and has been accused to encouraging Anglophobia in Scotland. The film’s relentlessly negative depiction of the English as vicious rapists is wildly wrong, but very effective.
Here in the US, Oliver Stone’s JFK presents a version of the facts intended to persuade the audience that Kennedy’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy. Stone carefully blended actual historical footage with invented footage in ways that make it appear that there is actual film footage proving that a conspiracy happened. Stone felt that although the footage proving a conspiracy didn’t exist, it should have, and so he manufactured it. That approach has more than a little in common with Jack McCoy’s notion of how to achieve justice
A number of polls and small studies have found that JFK has tended to persuade viewers that the Kennedy assassination was the result of a CIA conspiracy. If that’s true, this is a case of a historical film helping to shape the historical consciousness of the general population. (One specific study polled viewers before and after watching JFK and found a very marked increase in the number of people who believed in the conspiracy only after watching the film. Unfortunately, I’m relying on memory for this; I read about the study back in 1992, and I wasn’t able to track it down for this post, so take that with a grain of salt.)
Perhaps the best example of how historical films can influence people’s perceptions, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic reported used showings of the 1989 film The Battle of Kosovo as way to whip up Serbian support for his brutal treatment of the Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s. I don’t know enough about Serbian history to know if the film was particularly inaccurate, but Milosevic was able to use the film to remind Serbians of a particular historical grievance as a way to drum up political support for his policies.
For a different take on the problem, consider Christina McDowell, the daughter of Tom Prousalis, the so-called Wolf of Wall Street. In an opinion piece about the film, she accuses Martin Scorsese and Leonardo diCaprio of distorting the events around her father by glorifying him and making his crimes seem trivial when, in fact, they are part of a widespread problem at the heart of the American economy. As she says, “Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.”
I haven’t seen the Wolf of Wall Street yet, so I can’t speak to how it presents its narrative, but McDowell’s essay is an important reminder that historical events happen to real people. Tom Prousalis’ victims were and are real people; they deserve to have a say in how society remembers the events of their lives. McDowell, at least, feels that facts critical to her life have been badly misrepresented, to her detriment and to the detriment of the American public and its understanding of the Wall Street banking scandals.
Historical films matter, because for most people, such films are where they get much of their knowledge of history from. After 300 came out, I noticed an increase in the number of my students who thought that Thermopylae was the reason the Persians lost that war, and Braveheart has certainly given people the idea that medieval Scots wore great kilts, when in reality the Scottish kilt is a late 16th century development. Small historical inaccuracies probably aren’t too serious, and I doubt that it really matters that many Americans think that the kilt was a medieval garment, but how a film presents history can have very powerful affects on how people understand the past and their people’s place in it.