There’s a key moment in “Life of Pi” when a character asks the audience: “Which story do you prefer?” It’s a fairly benign question where this wholly fictional drama is concerned, but rather less so in the case of other Writers Guild Award nominees such as “Argo,” “Lincoln,” “The Master” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” All these screenplays were inspired by actual events, and all of them, to varying degrees, selectively truncate, embellish and even depart from the known record for the sake of coherence and drama.
Perhaps no film has demonstrated this more acutely or furiously than “Zero Dark Thirty.” Interestingly, the primary question at the heart of this wide-ranging controversy is not whether the CIA tortured detainees in its search for Osama bin Laden (that much has been conceded all around), but whether the decision by writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow to depict such acts, in the context of a manhunt narrative, amounts to a tacit endorsement.
The result has been a fascinating discussion of not just the veracity, but the morality of truth-inspired narrative: Does the story’s linear procedural structure imply a causal link between each event depicted and the climactic outcome? Or does the film seek to uncover a more complex, less politically reductive form of truth?
Some of the critics have charged that the torture scenes were invented specifically for the movie — an admittedly troubling deployment of artistic (as opposed to journalistic) license, but also one that doesn’t feel entirely off the mark, considering even current and former CIA officials differ on the question of how large a role torture played in the search for bin Laden. In engaging such matters directly, “Zero Dark Thirty” also dispenses with the question that typically governs Hollywood’s cautious forays into politically sensitive subject matter: Is it too soon? As “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart noted in a recent interview with “Zero” star Jessica Chastain, “Shouldn’t we be watching this 30 years from now?”
Which brings us to “Argo,” which, apart from some quibbles over its depiction of its Iranian characters and Canada’s involvement in the rescue mission, has neatly sidestepped just about every potential challenge to its authenticity, largely by making authenticity seem overrated. Chris Terrio’s screenplay tackles a declassified 30-year-old story, focusing on events far less convulsive and ultimately resonant than those of “Zero Dark Thirty.” The film is thus insulated from criticism by its historical distance and its escapist orientation; it seeks to entertain rather than educate.
Falling squarely between those two priorities is Tony Kushner’s screenplay for “Lincoln,” which historians have criticized for taking liberties with 19th-century American customs; for allegedly exaggerating Abraham Lincoln’s role in the abolition of slavery; and, in the case of one angry congressman, for besmirching Connecticut’s voting record.
Yet “Lincoln,” too, is largely armored against complaint by the length of time that has elapsed since the events presented (nearly 150 years), and also by something more significant: a widespread agreement on the heroism of the film’s subject, and a pronounced lack of moral ambiguity regarding the social-political issue at hand. And Kushner, revered as a dramatist rather than a historian, reminds us there’.s more to the art of screenwriting than getting your facts straight; “Lincoln” exults in the beauty of language for its own sake, evincing an almost palpable pleasure in its characters’ oratorical acumen.
A similar love of florid, antiquated speech governs Paul Thomas Anderson’s script for “The Master,” which bucked the trend by turning out to be far less controversial than anticipated. The film was once rumored to be a thinly veiled takedown of Scientology, and while the roots of the story’s inspiration are clear enough, its dramatic impulse leans more toward exploration than expose.
Inventing its own names and indeed its own religion, “The Master” frees itself from any obligation to the facts. But like “Lincoln,” it engages history with present-tense immediacy, and even more than “Zero Dark Thirty,” it’s at home with moral ambiguity. As far as dramatic truth-twisting goes, it could be the slipperiest movie of the season, not least because its title character (bearing an uncanny resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard) is himself a spinner of seductive lies, a human monument to the power of mass manipulation through art. Which story do you prefer?
WGA nominees spice up history with diverse approach
Tom Stoppard | Tony Kushner | Phil Rosenthal | Matt Groening | David Koepp | Daniel Petrie Jr. | Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima & Hideo Oguni | Joshua Brand and John Falsey | Bob Schneider