In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, columnist Peggy Noonan decried certain historical inaccuracies in the Netflix series The Crown and Steven Spielberg’s film The Post. While acknowledging the necessity of dramatic license, Noonan hammered Hollywood for twisting historical facts in an era when people learn through entertainment. With all due respect to Ms. Noonan, the obligation to find truth lies with the audience and not with entertainers.
In her column published on December 28, 2017, Noonan wrote:
“When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging.
Those who make movies and television dramas should start caring about this.”
Movies and television have never been a bona fide way to obtain an education. They are entertainment. The people who should care about history and truth are the viewing audience, but not while they are watching historical fiction. While Noonan makes valid points about some unfortunate inaccuracies, there is a responsibility of audiences to double-check their facts. To believe otherwise is a lazy way to pass the buck.
Nerd Alert: I have a history degree from Saint Joseph’s University. The subject has long been one of my biggest passions. I enjoy watching history-based films and television shows. I have never watched those programs to gather facts or information.
Some programs, like HBO’s John Adams or Band Of Brothers have had an effect on how I appreciate certain figures or time periods. Being able to spend a little time watching a representation of the second president or immersing yourself with soldiers of the 101st Airborne is a valuable tool. An audience can gain a greater understanding of people through films and television that other resources cannot come close to creating. The audience must be cautious, however, and absorb these portrayals with a grain of salt.
In a 2016 interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Mel Gibson explained why he deliberately did not include certain accomplishments of World War II hero Desmond Doss in his movie Hacksaw Ridge. The director said “There were things that he did that I couldn’t put in the film ’cause no one would believe it.”
According to Gibson, those deeds included stepping on a grenade and giving a wounded man the stretcher that Doss himself was being carried on. Even though the example may not be molding history in a way that was harmful to anyone’s image, it provides one reason why it can be necessary for producers, directors, and actors to bend the truth.
Gibson’s logic is sound from a creative standpoint and the industry veteran has probably obtained a keen understanding of what makes a successful film. He does have a history of making troubling statements that reflect a perspective that is far from moral point of view. I would hope that the vast majority of viewers believe that Gibson is not someone who should be viewed as an educator. He is a filmmaker who has a right to present his vision, but it is up to the audience to discern the validity of that vision.
Similarly, we should not rely on Steven Spielberg or Peter Morgan (creator of The Crown) to present history. Spielberg likely used political motivations to tell a certain story for The Post. That is his right as an artist. The Crown also has presents a misinterpretation of facts. In both instances some of the invented stories soil much better truths, but how The Crown portrays the inhabitants of Buckingham Palace is a choice that Netflix has made to support an ambitious narrative.
It is frequently necessary for creators to slant facts to make a more enjoyable product. They are artists who are endeavoring to entertain, not teach. Creators should be forthright about what facts were skewed, but their obligation is to create art in their own particular vision. If someone wants to learn about history, they are ultimately responsible for the sources that they choose to learn from. Historians, writers, and documentarians are the ones who have an obligation to present the truth in order to ensure the integrity of their work. These sources should be the ones we look to, not period dramas.