There's one word defining this year's Oscar conversation: "Actually."
Sure, numerous critics tell us, Selma was a bracing, inspiring depiction of the courage of civil rights leaders in the lead-up to the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. But actually President Lyndon Baines Johnson was a close ally, not a dismissive skeptic of Martin Luther King, Jr. during that period. Just so you know.
With half of the Best Picture nominees based on true stories, quibbling is inevitable. Actually, Chris Kyle didn't join the military because he saw American deaths on the news and Alan Turing wasn't actually quite as cold or as closeted as he appears in The Imitation Game, and Stephen Hawking actually was diagnosed with ALS before he started dating Jane Wilde.
Past Best Picture contenders get scrutinized too. Actually, Mark Zuckerberg didn't invent Facebook because of a breakup with his girlfriend. Actually, Sandra Bullock's hair wouldn't look like that in space. And for that matter, William Wallace didn't actually wear a kilt, and the embassy staff members didn't actually escape Iran with military vehicles chasing their plane, and torture didn't actually help us catch Bin Laden.
It's a constant source of tension between lovers of facts and lovers of art.
On one side you have New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who fretted that Selma's portrayal of LBJ wasn't just inaccurate, it was hazardous. "Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it," Dowd wrote.
Plenty have noted the absurdity, after watching a movie almost entirely about black civil rights leaders risking their lives to oppose injustice, of obsessing over whether the old white guy — then the most powerful man in the world — was given a fair shake. And they're right: LBJ's defenders distract from the movie's more central and important themes.
Before the debate over Selma, the Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg tackled the spate of fact-checking pieces generally. "History and nonfiction are constrained by what is true and what we can reasonably ascertain," she wrote. "It is fiction's liberty and fiction's responsibility to take us further."
Yet it's precisely those nitpickers who give historical fiction that liberty.
In nonfiction, truth is paramount: When Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock flatten timelines and leave out important facts in documentaries, it's a huge problem. Pure fiction, by contrast, lives or dies on theme, not facts. Despite the Internet videos that rattle off plot holes, The Dark Knight wasn't any less powerful because of the logistical unlikelihood of the Joker smuggling explosives under a hospital.
But based-on-a-true-story stories rest in an uneasy gulf in between. There's a saying that translations from one language to another can be beautiful or faithful, but not both. The same is true when translating historical facts into historical fiction. A true story, with all its lumps, rarely fits nicely into the rising action-climax-denouement structure of a two-hour film, so filmmakers change the story.
That's not to say that every diversion from the historical record makes for a better movie: Selma is strongest amid the streets, diners and churches of Alabama and weakest inside the Oval Office. An LBJ as cautious pragmatist would have been more convincing than an LBJ suddenly moving from dismissing civil rights legislation to championing it.
But ultimately, successful movies are impressionistic portraits, not photographs. They aim to capture hue, lighting, tone and theme, rather than every pixel. It's when you step back from them, and squint, that they should be communicating something true and profound.
Dowd has a point: We often learn the most through fiction. Few will sit through a history course on Martin Luther King, Jr. or read a thick biography of LBJ, but they will pay money to watch an incredibly well-filmed, well-acted movie. Misconceptions portrayed in fiction risk congealing into conventional wisdom.
But Dowd's fretting overlooks how columns like hers prevent that from happening. Movies don't exist in a vacuum — they exist alongside their criticism. Fans of Selma are likely to both watch the movie and read the criticism, learning far more about MLK and LBJ than they ever would have before.
The best historical fiction whets our appetite for historical fact. As soon as the credits roll, we power up our smartphones and start searching for answers: What was the deal with the priest who was killed by those racists in Selma? What did John Lewis end up doing in Congress? Did George Wallace ever get a little less evil? Did the FBI seriously harass King that directly?
And that's where the parade of actually's serves a useful purpose: Not just as a counterpoint to artistic license, but as an extension of that license. Filmmakers have the freedom to tell an amazing story that illuminates a larger truth, in part because they know that journalists and historians will help correct the record and tell the rest of the story.
Yes, the nitpickers and fact-checkers often miss the forest for the trees. But they play useful roles as lumberjacks, chopping down rot and clearing out underbrush, allowing the rest of us to more clearly see the true shape of things.♦