Silver screens and white lies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we baby-boomers have had a pretty good time of it. Prosperity. The chance of buying our own house. No wars to fight. Free university education. Cheap travel. Cures for cancer and Parkinson’s. Well, not quite yet, but I expect they’ll have been found just when we need them. And we’ll be dead before the planet has been destroyed. What a good time to have been alive. 

Another blessing is to have reached a mature age at exactly the time when the film moguls have made the astonishing discovery that older people like going to the cinema. Ten years ago, there was barely a film that I wanted to see. Now there are dozens of them. I suppose they haven’t all been made with oldies in mind, but that’s what it feels like. At the same time, services such as Netflix have arrived from nowhere, so a stream of dramas and documentaries awaits me at home.

This is the time of year for film-going. All the Oscar hopefuls are on parade, showing a shapely ankle. Every week there is something that is worth seeing. We trot off to the Picturehouse in Cambridge or to Cineworld in Huntingdon, lie back in plush seats, with a glass of wine and some popcorn, and wait to be entertained. And we are. Then we watch the Baftas and, in due course, the Oscars, to see if anyone agrees with our judgments.

All the films we have seen in recent weeks (Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Colette, Stan & Ollie, Vice, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Private War) are supposedly based on fact. This may offer a revealing glimpse of personal preference, but it is also a revealing glimpse of what film-makers are choosing as their subject matter these days. With fact-based drama come all the usual questions. To what extent is the ‘true’ story true? What liberties have been taken with the known facts to make either a dramatic or a political point?

Simon Jenkins has gone to town on this subject with his usual penetrating logic. “The director of The Favourite,” he writes, “remarked casually that ‘some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t.’ What is a history student to make of that?” Nor is he impressed by the defence: “Film-makers claim that everyone knows they make things up. I am not sure everyone does. But the fictions enter the record as attributed to historical figures.”

While I largely agree with Jenkins’s viewpoint, he and I – and everyone who cares about the search for truth – do not stand upon entirely solid ground. We are, tellingly, more concerned about films that deal with public events than with private ones. For all I know, Bohemian Rhapsody, Colette and Stan & Ollie may be just as cavalier in their treatment of facts as The Favourite or Vice. But no one writes much about that. Why not?

Also, we are more exercised with recent events than with those that happened long ago. Jenkins writes “I am sure the distant past can look after itself.” But why should it be able to? And where is the dividing line? One cannot be selective about accuracy: it either matters or it doesn’t.

Finally, Jenkins is disingenuous about the contrast with his own profession. “Journalists rightly call facts sacred,” he writes. “No serious journalist takes pride in inaccuracy.” Really? Have any of our newspapers, including his own, given us a balanced and factual account of the Brexit debate, for example? Almost everything The Guardian publishes about Brexit starts from the assumed fact that Britain will be worse off after it. If I read the Daily Telegraph, I would doubtless find that it starts from the assumed fact that Britain will be better off. Neither of these two things are facts. They reflect the prejudices of those newspapers just as Vice reflects the prejudices of Adam McKay towards Dick Cheney.

I expect that serious journalists do take pride in accuracy. The trouble is that I don’t trust them to know what accuracy is.

My own prejudice impels me to proclaim that historians are more reliable guardians of the truth than either journalists or film-makers. And I think they are. But they are not infallible either. They also have their prejudices, however objective they try to be. And historians have a bias towards iconoclasm. There is no point in writing a book that repeats what previous historians have argued. It is much more interesting (and profitable) to advance a new interpretation. Where that is reliably based on newly discovered documentary evidence, it is justified. But sometimes it is based on the desire to shock and to be different.

Let’s cut to the chase. It’s impossible to be hard and fast about these issues, however much one would like to be. I actually don’t care what liberties have been taken with the lives of Freddie Mercury, Colette or Laurel and Hardy. I also don’t care how much Lee Israel (the author of Can You Ever Forgive Me?) took liberties with her own life. I also don’t care that The Favourite invented much of its own storyline, because – pace Simon Jenkins – I can’t believe that anyone, now or in the future, is going to regard it as a serious historical study. All these have been thoroughly enjoyable films. I have been entertained, as I hoped.

But I do care about Vice and A Private War because, unlike the others, they seek to make a virtue out of fact. Both are mock-umentaries. As far as I know, A Private War has attracted no criticism for its portrayal of Marie Colvin. So, what is the criticism of Vice? Jenkins bases his criticism largely on a blog by Fred Kaplan, who is no fan of Dick Cheney. Kaplan is no fan of the film either, but his criticism of it has far more to do with its supposed shallowness and political naivety than with factual inaccuracy. Indeed, where Kaplan produces facts, they mostly support the film.

There are two big ‘known unknowns’, however. Did Cheney urge the invasion of Iraq mainly, or at least partly, for his own business interests? Did he agree to become Bush’s Vice-President on condition that he could run all the critical aspects of government?

Only Dick Cheney knows the answer to the first question. Only Cheney and George W. know the answer to the second. We have no idea. But it is perfectly valid for Adam McKay to advance the hypothesis that the answer to both questions is ‘yes’. It is not inaccurate to do so, merely speculative. And speculation needs to be an integral part of the writing of history. There is no reason to regard McKay’s interpretation of Cheney as being any less reliable than Eric Hobsbawn’s interpretation of the 20th century.

I don’t have a settled view of these matters. I want to agree with Simon Jenkins, but I can’t entirely. What I am certain of is that Christian Bale’s portrayal of Dick Cheney is among the finest acting performances I have ever seen. If it doesn’t win him an Oscar, that really will be something to complain about. And, while we’re about it, let’s give one to Rosamund Pike too.