With the recent New York Times report on how Sony may have altered its film, Concussion, to please the NFL, we learn of yet another docudrama playing fast and loose with the facts.
Other recent examples include Straight Outta Compton, which ignores Dr. Dre’s abuse of women and overlooks the homophobia of some of N.W.A.’s lyrics, and The Social Network, which falsely implies that Mark Zuckerberg’s motivation in creating Facebook was his despair over a lost love.
When lines like these blur between entertainment and real life, one has to ask: Should storytellers take stakeholders into account when deciding how to tell a story, especially one based on actual events?
Should filmmakers and other kinds of storytellers have the freedom to modify the historical record, or even intentionally misrepresent reality, in the service of their art?
And should senior managers of film, television, and publishing companies be willing to tell stories in ways that might alienate others?
Art for money’s sake
The Latin phrase Ars Gratia Artis, which appears underneath MGM’s roaring lion logo means “Art for art’s sake.” No one, including the studio’s founders, Marcus Loew and Louis B. Mayer, ever took that literally. That’s because commercial filmmaking has never and can never function independently from the bottom line.
Legendary script consultant Robert McKee, who shows executives within and beyond Hollywood how to tell compelling stories well and is the author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, notes that when it comes to filmmaking, art and commerce are inextricably bound. “If you’re a filmmaker,” he told me, “you’re not a poet. You’re spending tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money, and you have a responsibility at least to return the investment.”
Billionaire Howard Hughes could afford to produce controversial films like The Outlaw as he saw fit because he owned the studio that made it. For just about everyone else, it’s not ethical, or even possible, to completely ignore the stakeholders’ needs and desires.
But what if one of those stakeholders wants to alter the historical record?
This brings us to Quentin Tarantino.
The ethics of rewriting history
The Weinstein Company (no relation) advertised Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as “The movie that rewrote history!” That’s because—spoiler alert—Adolf Hitler is murdered in the story’s climax, and the execution takes place in a crowded cinema. No one could reasonably argue that Tarantino was wrong to take liberties with the historical record. His film is pure escapist entertainment. Wish fulfillment is one of the most satisfying reasons to watch movies, and Tarantino’s story is a brilliant example of that.
But Inglourious Basterds doesn’t purport to be a docudrama. Shouldn’t movies like Concussion, about a physician’s effort to draw attention to the dangers of professional football, hew much more closely to the facts?
The problem isn’t simply that Sony Pictures (SNE) set out to distort the record to appease the National Football League. It’s that it’s not possible to be completely factual in any creative medium, no matter how much one might like to do so.
Screenwriting expert McKee explains that telling a story in two hours that spans years necessarily involves selecting some facts over others, combining the actions of several people into those of a single character, overlooking this event in favor of that one, and other choices. This is why novelist Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, said that there’s no such thing as a “true story.” Even if a story’s subject is a matter of historical record, the story itself will always be shaped—and distorted—by the storyteller. That’s not unethical. It’s inevitable.
But this doesn’t quite let Sony Pictures off the hook.
Courageous leaders and cowardly lions
Pop quiz! What do The Godfather, Chinatown, The Searchers, and Raging Bull have in common?
- They’re disturbing stories about human beings at their worst.
- Their writers, directors, and producers were unafraid to make them.
- They’re on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time.
- Each made a profit.
- All of the above.
The correct answer is “5.” Another common denominator is that every one of those films is over 30 years old. In 30 years, will Concussion and other let’s-play-it-safe films of today be considered among the greatest ever made? I don’t have a Magic 8 Ball, but I’ll bet its response would be, “Outlook not so good.”
The best films of Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, John Ford, and Martin Scorsese tackled controversial subjects and revealed aspects of human nature that were less than flattering, and they all made money for the companies that produced them. True, it took some longer than others to do so, and only one—The Godfather—was a bona fide blockbuster, but all ultimately prevailed.
Even if businesses have a right to do something, that doesn’t mean it’s right for them to do it. If Sony Pictures is really softening the edges around the story of football and head injuries just to keep the NFL happy, as the New York Times alleges, everybody will lose.
- A potentially riveting story about the intersection of sports, science, and health will be diluted and its impact weakened.
- Moviegoers will tell themselves, “This story feels rigged,” and they’ll advise their friends to stay away.
- Sony Pictures won’t get the hit they hoped for
Robert McKee observes that television is where bold storytelling now takes place. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan—this is where we find works of art that explore the full spectrum of humanity, including its uglier aspects. It’s not a coincidence that HBO, AMC, Showtime, and other networks that produce these kinds of shows are all making money.
The Cowardly Lion eventually found the strength to move past his fears and take a stand. Movie studios willing to do the same may find more than plaudits from pundits like me. They’ll reap fortunes from the millions of people who are hungry for authentic stories that take risks, touch the heart, and show us what it means to be alive in the world today.
Acknowledgments: I’m grateful to Mia Kim, Mark Lagasse, Shannon O’Neill, and Robert McKee for their help in the preparation of this column.