Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan’s column on movies runs every two weeks. Mary Burgan is a retired professor of English and association executive. Her previous reviews are listed at the end of this post. You can contact Mary by email.
In the past decade there has been increasing thirst for imagining “reality” in the media, and as that thirst has grown, the temptation among the media moguls has been to stage reality under the “Life Unscripted” tag line of a past TLC/Discovery channel commercial.
Of course, reality TV has never been able to keep from scripting: reality is too boring. But feature films are another matter. Their very limits make them attractive as vehicles for a meaningful approximation of life — of a fleshed-out version of an historical happening.
Biopics from the 1930s-1940s
We seem to have an innate urge to see life-like versions of what really happened. For example, biopics of the 1930s and 1940s attached to that urge an impulse to teach. So they sought to give real-life accounts of historical figures ranging from Louis Pasteur to Woodrow Wilson to Glen Miller.
These efforts at reconstruction were so stylized, technicolorized, and glamorized that sophisticated viewers were not likely to take them as gospel. And they faded away. I must admit, though, that as a kid who went to a lot of movies I learned a lot of history from them.
Movie-makers don’t project the old-fashioned form of reality cinema so much these days. Instead they are turning out significant films that claim strict fidelity to what actually happened — or is actually happening — in contemporary affairs.
Oliver Stone’s Presidential Movies
Such films may have started with Oliver Stone’s efforts to reconstruct the atmosphere surrounding lives of presidents: JFK (1991), followed by Nixon (1995), and W. (2008). But while such films sought to present their dramatizations as semi-documentaries, not obviously political, they were obviously political. The controversy that swirled around them was less about their success at dramatization than about their scripting of political reality.
Fair Game presents a current example of this kind of controversy. In a defense of its accuracy the Wilsons protested against a Washington Post editorial, questioning its veracity by claiming that “When the history is written, the film ‘Fair Game’ will be seen to have been far more honest and accurate than the collective record of the [Post] editorial board” (Post Editorial page, 12/7/10).
Who is to decide about the truth of such docudramas? As one who read Joe Wilson’s opinion piece in The New York Times when it first came out, I felt an inside-knowledge thrill when the page flashed on the screen in Fair Game, and thereafter had only a few qualms about the film’s accuracy. I already agreed with it, after all. And that may be why I enjoyed the movie.
That approval did not happen with The Social Network. Something about the film’s depiction of anti-Semitism and privilege at Harvard and party girl co-eds at Stanford rubbed me the wrong way enough that I decided to test the story for myself. I found the film skewed, and once a viewer begins to doubt such a film, its virtues get blurred.
Michael Moore and the Genre
The popularity of such dramatizations of history as Fair Game and The Social Network may share with the current popularity of feature-length documentaries. The genre was given new life by Michael Moore, whose 1989 film Roger& Me began a trend. Moore followed that success with a series of documentaries like Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Sicko (2007), and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) all of which made a lot of money. And all of which featured Moore’s intrusive personality, which never fails to beat his point to death.
I haven’t seen Moore’s film on Capitalism. I skipped it because of my problems with his intrusiveness. On the other hand, I have found Inside Job, still in theaters, extremely balanced as a documentary, even though its point of view is made passionately clear. The film works with archival footage of many Captains of Finance testifying before Congress after the bank failures.
Their testimony is artfully cut and cross-edited to show the contradictions in what they say, and what they say is devastating in its blindness. Politicians such as Congressman Henry Waxman of California shine in this movie, as does former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (whose disgrace is the subject of another recent documentary).
The one jarring note in Inside Job‘s scripting of reality is its fiercely aggressive interviews with some of its targets, coupled with its insistence on telling us that other targets of the film’s scorn have refused to submit to interviews. Those who refused would be relieved about their decision if they ever took a look at what happened to those who consented.
I had no problem with accepting Inside Job as giving me the real story, however. For one thing, I had heard interviews on National Public Radio with some of the experts on the crisis, and they tended to share the analysis of the film. And then I had followed the developing story in the newspapers, reading columns by people I have grown to trust. But, finally, the film fit my own sense of the unreliable world we live in.
It is that fit, I think, that makes contemporary reality-based dramas and documentaries vital forces in recent cinema. They help to script our realities when we aren’t sure what to believe. Or when we need to have our beliefs confirmed.
Other Reviews by Mary Burgan
- “For Colored Girls” and the Films of Tyler Perry
- “All Quiet on the Western Front” Still Powerful After 80 Years
- Scary Movies: My Personal List
- Will You Friend Me? “The Social Network”
- “Wall Street II” Lacks Moral Clarity of 1987 Film
- Tilda Swinton in Love
- Breaking Away: Going-to-College Movies
- “Inception” Doesn’t Measure Up to “The Matrix”
- Books to Movies: Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy”
- A Bastille Day Salute: 10 French Films to See
- Mary Reviews Movies About Fathers
- Borderstan Movie Fan Explains Indie Flicks
- Borderstan Movie Fan: Favorites from Argentina, Brazil
- Borderstan Movie Fan: “Alice” and “The Secret of Kells”
- Mary’s Favorite (and Not So Favorite) Violent Movies
- Gentrification: “Clybourne Park” Plot Speaks to Borderstan
- Borderstan Movie Fan: Black History Month and the Media
- Catching Up: The Movie Fan is Back with New Reviews
- Opera Lite: Opera at the Movies
- Borderstan Movie Fan: “Avatar” and Films for the Big Screen
- Borderstan Movie Fan: Movies for Christmas
- “Precious” and “The Blind Side” Tell Some Hard Truths
- Borderstan Movie Fan: Children’s Movies for Grandparents, Part 2/Older Kids
- Borderstan Movie Fan: Children’s Movies for Grandparents (Part 1)
- High School Musicals
- Movies for Foodies
- Health Care Options at the Movies
- My Favorite Sexy Movies
- Borderstan Movie Fan” Tells You What to Rent