Hollywood and PC History
Altering history for dramatic effect isn’t a big deal — except when it discomfits liberals.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty


Fred Thompson

Last week I received a call from a Hollywood reporter asking me if I thought that the political criticism that the movie Zero Dark Thirty had received would hurt its chances at the Oscars. Not having a lot of experience with Academy Awards, I replied that I had no idea. However, I couldn’t help but offer something, so I added that I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, since liberal criticism of movies often seems to resonate more than criticism from the right, which is usually ignored. (“Moo,” right? Master of the obvious.)

The reporter was referring to the “word” going around Hollywood that ZDT had fallen out of favor after (mostly) liberal politicians in Washington criticized the movie for showing enhanced-interrogation techniques as an important and effective tool in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Three senators called for an investigation into what information the CIA had offered the filmmakers, and asked the studio to state that torture was not an effective technique. Specifically, the movie suggested that enhanced interrogation had produced some information that, along with other intelligence, revealed Osama bin Laden’s courier, which in turn led to bin Laden himself. Liberals on both coasts were outraged. Never mind that this is precisely what several people involved in the pursuit, including Obama’s former CIA director Leon Panetta, said happened. How dare a Hollywood movie throw a bone to a George W. Bush policy!

Perhaps my reporter friend was on to something. Last night, Zero Dark Thirty didn’t fare too well at the Oscars, despite having received more critical praise than the other nominees and garnering the most pre-Academy awards. Kathryn Bigelow, the highly acclaimed director of the movie, didn’t even get nominated for best director. The Carter-era Iranian-rescue movie Argo (with the phony final runway-chase scene) won Best Picture, which was announced by Michelle Obama.

I’m not saying it’s all about politics — not Washington politics, anyway. It’s more about hypocrisy and political correctness. The criticism of Zero is based, wrongly, in my opinion, on its supposed historical inaccuracy. Meanwhile Lincoln is receiving almost universal adulation, although the most important dramatic premise of that movie is not historically accurate.

The tense and exciting fight against the clock as Lincoln tried to get the 13th Amendment passed was made up. The South was not going to be allowed to hold it up, particularly with General Sherman’s successful military campaign far below the Mason-Dixon Line.  Further, Lincoln had made it clear that he’d call a special session of Congress in March 1865 if needed, at which time he would be assured of having enough Republican votes for passage of the amendment.  Lincoln’s greatness needs no embellishment, but that didn’t stop the writer of the screenplay from embellishing. Abe Lincoln was an extraordinary politician but a politician nonetheless — he opposed slavery vehemently but, as late as 1862, had no intention of eradicating it if the Union could be preserved without doing so. He didn’t even support the 13th Amendment when the idea was first introduced. None of this is extremely important in the broad scope of history, but moviemakers would have gone a little lighter on Lincoln as saint if they had prized historical accuracy.

Frost-Nixon was an award-winning Broadway play and movie based on a real-life TV interview of the former president by David Frost. The final scene shows Frost aggressively going after Nixon and finally wearing him down, getting him to admit that he was in on the cover-up of Watergate. But the confession never happened in the real interview. In the mainstream media, only writer Elizabeth Drew pointed this out and chided those responsible for the misrepresentation.

You’ve probably never read the transcript of the Scopes monkey trial, on which the movie Inherit the Wind is based. If you did, however, you would not find the befuddled, confused, and embarrassed William Jennings Bryan who is depicted in the movie, where he defends a literal interpretation of the Bible. Regardless of one’s view on the matter,  the historical record shows Bryan more than held his own under cross-examination by Clarence Darrow and that the unfair portrayal just might have had something to do with Hollywood’s opinion on the issue.

Altering history or making up “facts” in a movie or play is not that big of a deal. Every historical drama ever written has contained heavy doses of fiction, either for dramatic effect or to make a point. Just ask Richard II. What is of concern is that fictionalized accounts that are factually wrong but politically correct tend to become accepted history. Others that are less convenient, such as Zero Dark Thirty, get a congressional investigation.

— Fred Thompson is a former U.S. Senator from Tennessee.