Over the past few weeks, there’s been much hullabaloo shouted from various electronic rooftops about the supposed validity of two of this year’s biggest biopics: American Sniper, the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, and Selma, a snapshot of one episode in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Selma, first out the gate into wide release, caught major flak for its historical inaccuracy in depicting President LBJ as an opponent of civil rights and characterizing him as a villain. Selma was decried from many corners of the internet (particularly from those inhabited by that most oppressed of groups, young white males) as “pure Oscar bait”, an over-simplification of history, and–at worst and most wretched–race-baiting designed to simply fan the flames currently burning in American race relations.
The case against American Sniper, on the other hand, is somewhat of a tit-for-tat from the American left; almost immediately after going into wide release, Sniper was slammed as being an “inaccurate depiction” of who Chris Kyle really was, for being “racist”, and, as is always the case with any movie that features war, jingoistic propaganda crafted solely to rile up middle America in all of its yee-hawing, gun-totin’ glory. As Sniper roared into life at the box office this past weekend, things got decidedly nastier; Twitter feuds between celebrities, countless thinkpieces, and, most disgustingly, quasi-journalistic outlets running clickbait articles comprised solely of tweets from “middle Americans” apparently encouraged by Sniper to drop everything and “kill some Muslims”.
The irony that this is just a role-reversal of what Fox News regularly ran during Ferguson is apparently lost in the discourse.
At the heart of both sides of this story–whether you want to bash Selma or Sniper–is the idea that a film that purports to be true while actually being false is an incredibly dangerous thing. Never mind that historical inaccuracy in filmmaking is by no means anything new; after all, film as propaganda is just as old, isn’t it? In the hyperpartisan American landscape of the New Tens, there’s no room for nuance. Anything onscreen that your opponent could possibly misinterpret and be riled into action by is inherently threatening. After all, you know better than they do–but how can you be so sure that the teeming, mysterious other will do all their research on the true story when they get home from the theater?
Heck, you don’t even need to see the film to comment on it. You saw the ads, maybe read a review or two. You saw the thinkpiece on your favorite blog. You know the story better than anyone sitting down to watch it, so why give your money to the enemy? Better to judge from afar, where it’s safe.
As a student of film, this strikes me as incredibly intellectually lazy; as an American, it strikes me even more so as intellectually dishonest. It’s a microcosm of not only our disgustingly partisan culture, but of our endless need to have an instant and final reaction to anything we’re exposed to. Selma bad, ignores white people; Sniper bad, glorifies liar. I can’t sit still and watch this two-hour movie before I make up my mind; I’ll just read whoever I agree with and take their word for it.
Worse still is the fact that such thinking comes from the darkest side of our right-left divide–the idea that your opponent is just so stupid that anything false that might appeal to them is inherently dangerous. This is laughably elitist–actually, I take that back. It’s frighteningly so. It’s the exact kind of thought process that’s exploited by politicians every other autumn; that your “enemy” is an unwashed mass of idiots, one step away from erupting into violence and easily spurned into action by fabrications. Liberals are crazed looters looking for an excuse to riot. Conservatives are blind patriots itching to shoot anything. As we head into the second half of this decade, these narratives are gaining more and more acceptance, even among people who by all means should know better. Rather than taking the time to think critically, we’re letting other people do it for us, and trusting that the other side is just a bunch of morons who simply lack the function to do either. The real propaganda being served up isn’t these two films; it’s the fictions crafted around them for political point-scoring.
Maybe the reason I’m so angry about all of this is because I happened to actually like both of the films in question, even if for different reasons. American Sniper is shockingly anti-war and critical of America’s culture of violence, with Clint Eastwood disparaging the way in which we raise violent men, use them, and then toss them on the side of the road. Selma is a deep look at the tactics of media manipulation, of the weight one’s soul can bear knowing that you’re sending people into harm’s way. Yes, neither film is completely historically accurate or true, but, honestly–who cares?
Anyone who wanders into a cinema, sits down, and accepts everything on screen as 100% literal fact is either an idiot or a child. Anyone with even the most basic understanding of film is fully aware that anything on a screen–even a documentary–is just one of a hundred possible permutations and interpretations of the truth, carefully cut and edited into place by a team of dozens, if not hundreds of people. The words “based on a true story” have been a laughingstock since the introduction of Lifetime; why are we so afraid that some people will not understand this?
Kierkegaard famously rejected the prevailing objectivist theology of his time, finding concern less with whether or not the Bible was literally true and more with whether or not he found it spiritually so. I propose we do the same with cinema. Disregard whether or not the images you see flicker on a screen actually “really” happened; listen to your heart, to the ideas they give birth to inside of your head, and come to your own conclusions.