Today I watched Oliver Stone’s JFK for the first time. As someone with a love of movies who grew up in Dallas, this viewing has without a doubt been a long time coming. And as with any film “based on a true story,” I dove into the fact vs. fiction of the film immediately after the credits rolled.
Sometimes you get a movie like this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Spotlight, that largely takes a faithful, restrained approach when it comes to presenting the facts. Other times, you get something like David Fincher’s The Social Network, that takes the “true story” moniker as a suggestion rather than a rule, that uses its source material as heavy inspiration for a work of fiction. After a quick Google search, I can’t say that I can place JFK anywhere in particular on that sliding scale, just that it’s somewhere in between the two. Snippets of reviews from the time of the film’s release often praise the film as a technically brilliant work and a thrilling spectacle, while criticizing it for playing loose with the facts. Nobody ever seems to get into specifically what is wrong with the film, though, which makes me wonder — do we naturally mistrust JFK’s story because of how ridiculous it sounds, because we can’t believe that something so grand and earth-shatteringly crazy could be true? Do we forget that, very often, the truth is stranger than fiction?
Of course, that’s not to say that JFK isn’t riddled with inaccuracies — I simply haven’t done the research to know for sure, and really, I doubt anyone still knows for sure. Kennedy assassination theories aren’t completely hollow and easily misproven, like “Kubrick helped the US government fake the moon landing” or “Elvis and John Lennon and Harambe are all chilling in the Pacific Northwest together.” (That last one was mine.) Although, much like Kennedy himself, the many theories surrounding his death are not bulletproof, either.
Anyway, there’s been plenty written about JFK’s assassination already. Maybe too much. So that’s not why I’m here — rather, I’m wondering about the value of truth in narrative arts. The line between faithfully recreating real events and stretching them into falsehoods is dangerously thin.
(Really, I’m sorry about that bulletproof joke. It was almost certainly in poor taste. But when an opportunity for a pun like that comes up, you can’t just refuse that gift from the universe, can you?)
I think most people know not to take The Social Network as gospel when it comes to having a historical understanding of Mark Zuckerberg’s life and personality. It presents itself with a level of dramatics and stylistic flourish that it never appears to be labeling itself as a portrayal of fact. JFK, on the other hand, at many times feels more like a documentary than a drama. Is it irresponsible to present a narrative as such when there are still so many factual unknowns? Heck, even some documentaries have this problem — just look at Searching for Sugar Man, a film whose impact relies completely on the truthfulness of a timeline presented as fact, when in reality the filmmakers chose to omit details so massive that they might as well have lied to the audience’s faces. (I’m being intentionally ambiguous in case anyone reading wants to watch it, since many people still like the film… eh, who am I kidding, nobody reads my blog.) To me, discovering an engaging “true story” narrative to be largely inaccurate after-the-fact is immensely disappointing. This isn’t necessarily because I like to watch movies to get my historical knowledge or form my opinions about the real world, but rather because I want to believe that real life can be just as thrilling, fascinating, and amazing as our greatest fiction.
I’ve been really into Hamilton recently, having listened to the cast album around three times all the way through and for hours more on a track-by-track basis. And there are plenty of reasons to love Hamilton outside of its true-to-life-ness or lack thereof — its amazing soundtrack, clever lyrics, engaging characters, wonderful writing, and paradigm-shifting approaches to everything from casting to musical styles to all the ways it takes something old and makes it feel so thrillingly new and relevant. I can’t shake, though, the slight twinge of disappointment I feel after learning what historical details were altered or omitted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s narrative. Some are minor and ultimately don’t betray any sense of reality, like that Hamilton voting for Jefferson over Burr for the presidency wasn’t the actual “final straw” that led to Burr challenging Hamilton to a duel. Others, I can understand simply because they make for a more compelling narrative, either visually or structurally, like how people in duels would actually point their pistols at the ground, not the sky, or that Philip Hamilton wasn’t shot before the count to ten in his duel. There are a few, however, that frustrate me to know — Angelica Schuyler actually had older brothers, and therefore was able to marry for love, making the whole “he is not a lot of fun” bit that illustrates her as being in a loveless marriage a load of crap designed to make her and Hamilton’s relationship more tragic; Eliza actually knew for quite a while that Hamilton had been sleeping with Mariah Reynolds before he published the infamous “Reynolds Pamphlet”; and so on. I guess it’s just a matter of determining where the line lies between “narratively satisfying” and “manipulatively deceptive.”
In all honesty, I don’t think any of these things ultimately betray the message Hamilton is trying to communicate, it’s just that some of the truths stung more than others when I first heard them. Maybe I just felt so attached to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s retelling of history that to discover it was any different in real life felt like a little betrayal. In the end, I think that speaks more to the strength and brilliance of the play than to any faults. Plus, there’s the one last crucial fact that plays to Hamilton’s advantage — it’s a musical, so no one is going to mistake it for a journalistic work of historical fact. It’s inherently a bit silly and detached from reality.
With JFK, I can see why more people would have a problem with its portrayal of history. Not only does the film present itself as a pseudo-documentary-drama, with real archival footage interspersed with actors and sets, but it also has as its central narrative theme the faithful representation of history, as a fundamental component of freedom of speech and information. Basically, it leaves itself wide open for attacks and criticism. Even so, I think JFK gets more right than it gets wrong, not from a factual standpoint, but in terms of its communication of ideas to the audience in an engaging way. The theory presented in the film may be the truth, or it may be completely false, but what’s more important either way is that it encourages people to question what they’re told, to not immediately take what those in power say as gospel, and to realize that often the truth can be much crazier than we assume. In the same way, Hamilton might take some liberties with historical details, but does so for the sake of illustrating how the events of our past are often incredibly relevant and revealing to the issues of our present, and showing that history can be made exciting and interesting when viewed through a new lens. (As Oliver Stone reminds us in the ending credits of JFK, via the Bard: “What is past is prologue.”)
Spotlight changes little from reality for its narrative, since so much of its message revolves around journalistic integrity and revealing the truth. The Big Short could have shuffled all its characters and locations around as its creators saw fit, because what ultimately mattered was that the film helped average Americans understand the financial crisis from causal and personal perspectives. Really, the accuracy or historical truthfulness of any film (or any work of art/storytelling for that matter) doesn’t matter as long as the work is consistently and honorably dedicated to a central idea, and doesn’t intentionally mislead people into believing in outright falsehoods.
This is the central tenet of all storytelling, of all art — to communicate ideas effectively, especially in regards to bringing different perspectives to those who have not considered them. Art is a uniting force designed not to simply transport information but rather to evoke feelings and ideas in its audience, so that they may go out into the world armed with more humanity and sympathy than they had before. Art forces us to question established perspectives, challenges us to seek new understanding, and ideally drives us to change our world for the better with passion and love.