Briefly noted: Two readings on film and truth

Historical truth, to adapt Oscar Wilde, is rarely pure and never simple, and getting it right is more difficult when history is presented in condensed form. Contention has arisen over two current films: Selma and The Imitation Game. In Selma, what’s at issue is its presentation of President Johnson’s support (or lack thereof) for voting rights; in The Imitation Game, a great deal more is being questioned, from the depiction of Alan Turing’s character to details about historical events. Suggested reading:

Turing presents a case broadly comparable to that of J. Robert Oppenheimer in the United States; both were vastly accomplished, heroically dedicated, and unjustly condemned. Any effort to dramatize either of these men faces, among other things, the challenge of making their enormously complicated achievements intelligible. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any American scriptwriters who could present a substantial portrait of either figure, but I’d love to see what Tom Stoppard or Michael Frayn could come up with. I’m aware of Hugh Whitemore’s play Breaking the Code, which deals with Turing, but I’ve neither seen it nor read it. Surprisingly, the opera Doctor Atomic, composed by John Adams to a collage-like libretto by Peter Sellars, speaks very suggestively of Oppenheimer while remaining limited to the period around the Trinity test in 1945.

Ordinarily, I’d say more than this, but a case of shingles is still sapping my concentration.

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5 thoughts on “Briefly noted: Two readings on film and truth

  1. I’ve read Dowd’s column on Selma and the NYR review of Imitation Game. Still want to see both films, if only for the performances of David Oyelowo and Benedict Cumberbatch. I don’t look to a biopic (or a play) for historical accuracy; it’s entertainment. History is best gotten from books.

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  2. I pretty much agree with you and considered saying as much—if you want to know this stuff, you really ought to read some books. I have to say, though, that Michael Frayn got the facts right, to the extent that they’re known, in Copenhagen, his drama about the WWII meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and he got them right in Democracy, about a Communist spy working for West German chancellor Willy Brandt. Similarly, one wouldn’t go awry (as far as I’m able to judge) in accepting as basically true The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s majestic three-play survey of the Russian Revolution’s background. Your husband might appreciate reading that last one.

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  3. It’s an added bonus when an author or playwright bothers to get the details right and convey a period accurately. I certainly strive to do this in my fiction (historian’s instincts, always keeping me honest), but the literal truth, what really happened, is often not as interesting, dramatically, as the more creative version of the story. In the best case scenario, the essence is still accurate. I’m willing to suspend judgment on “the facts, ma’am” until I’ve grasped what the playwright or director is attempting to say.

    BTW, a colleague who is a Russian historian, very well-versed in the personalities and events of the Russian Revolution walked out of Stoppard in disgust. Not sure at what point in the sequence, or what in particular set him off, but he’s generally a generous and level-headed person, not prone to such gestures.

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  4. If I had more time (that eternal problem), I’d investigate the reaction of historians to Stoppard’s trilogy. The one you reported makes me very curious.

    Regarding The Imitation Game, I gather that you didn’t see it over the weekend as you had expected. Whenever you do, I hope I’ll hear your views.

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