Thursday, January 11, 2018

Opinion We laugh at Russian propaganda. But Hollywood history is just as fake. By Simon Jenkins

The new thriller All the Money in the World, based on the kidnap of John Paul Getty III in 1973, carries an announcement that it is “inspired by” true events and that its genre is “history”. What does that mean, since some of it is clearly not true? Why not say it is “inspired by lies”, and its genre is fiction? That would be true. Likewise, promotion for the latest Churchill movie, Darkest Hour, says that the actor Gary Oldman “is Churchill”. Everyone, including the great man, is made up to appear as in real life. We are asked to treat it as true. Yet it includes a fabricated scene, out of character, in which he chats on the tube with ordinary people, clearly to make him look good. If that is not true, how much else “isn’t Churchill”? Some of it; most of it; or all of it?

Viewers of the TV serial The Crown are also invited to treat its account of the Queen’s life as accurate. Yet the royal historian Hugo Vickers has voluminously documented references that are simply made up – including a Profumo affair connection between Prince Philip and the high society osteopath Stephen Ward. The viewer is offered no guidance as to what is true and what is false. The Crown will now be “the truth” about Elizabeth and Philip, round the world in perpetuity.

Should we care? Hollywood’s apologists claim that documentary fabrication is good clean fun. Since all news is entertainment, why complain if entertainment dresses itself up as news, to give it sex appeal? So what if the Getty kidnap did not end in a corny car chase, or if Prince Philip never had an affair? The biographer Lawrence James loves the new Churchill film because – while it “may not be wholly truthful” – it is “history as it ought to have been … history as a work of art designed to enthral the world”. I wonder if he would say the same of a fabricated movie glorifying the Germans. We are not told what the Queen thinks of the distortions in The Crown, but I doubt if she would call them “history as it ought to have been”. Why do the producers feel a need to fabricate incidents in the Queen’s life, or Getty’s, or Churchill’s, when the truth is interesting enough? Does Churchill really need lies to bolster his reputation?

The movie business seems to have lost faith in fiction as a way of moving hearts and minds. It craves the authenticity of history to help sell its wares. But fiction depends on the “suspension of disbelief”, on establishing a plausible fake reality, as does Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the historical setting of Borodino. Documentary purports to be journalism, “real” reality. This depends on trust in the veracity of the narrator. The Getty film was spoiled for me because, at every turn, the storyline veered from apparent history into obvious fantasy. Fact and fiction tumbled over each other until I lost faith in what I should be disbelieving... read more: