Playing with political truths

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We live in a world where “fake news” is everywhere in politics. Post-truth politics, as they say. And many people have made it their responsibility to combat this. One industry where this appears to be particularly common is Hollywood. Whereas I’ve written previously about using awards ceremonies as political soapboxes (see article), many films have also used a foregrounding of truth in order to criticise authority, as well as, one might say, the bending of truth altogether.


The films Capote, Infamous and Zodiac follow journalists in their relation of stories to the truth in a critical light. In a brilliantly ironic and postmodern approach, they use dramatic license in order to criticise dramatic license. Capote’s friendship with the killers he wrote about is exaggerated, in order that his abusing of said friendship to become a famous writer may be criticised. Think about the villains in recent true crime films, The Big Short and Spotlight. They’re white-collar criminals. And these films are more famous for their historical accuracy.


But the British film industry doesn’t appear to have the same outlook. Crime films we’ve offered recently, such as 2015’s Legend, are not particularly historically accurate. But an upcoming Churchill biopic has been blasted by historians not only for being historically inaccurate but for pushing truths in completely the opposite direction. What makes this worse is that the screenwriter, Alex von Tunzelmann, writes a regular Guardian column entitled ‘Reel history’ where she tears apart Hollywood films based on their historical inaccuracy. It seems, therefore, that she clearly knows how much she is bending the facts with this Churchill film.


But this doesn’t surprise me. Look at the uproar that came with Churchill’s face being on five pound notes. Many members of the millennial generation love singling him out as one of their targets for criticism. I think it should be fair to take into account the world he was from when making these criticisms, as well as remember that he is largely the reason they are free today.


Obviously nobody’s perfect. And Churchill had many flaws, but exaggerating them seems to be what this film aims to do, and I find that disappointing. Again, it is even more disappointing that it is a British film. Dramatic license is fine. Some of my favourite films exaggerate the truth by miles. But it just feels to me as this is an example of deliberately exaggerating the bad side of somebody to please an overly-sensitive and critical generation of filmgoers. Perhaps they should scrutinize the facts as much as they do the man.


For a more respectable and realistic portrayal of Churchill, I’d recommend the US-funded series The Crown, where he is played by American actor John Lithgow. It appears Hollywood is learning to portray truth as what it is. Perhaps the UK film industry should do the same?