WGA nominees spice up history with diverse approach

WGA Awards 2013

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 Awards 2013
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

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Jennifer Jason Leigh'Patrick Melrose' TV show

    Gina Rodriguez's Sci-Fi Thriller 'Awake' Rounds Out Cast (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barry Pepper and “Game of Thrones” actor Finn Jones will join Gina Rodriguez in Netflix’s sci-fi thriller “Awake.” The newly announced cast also includes Ariana Greenblatt, Frances Fisher, Shamier Anderson, Lucius Hoyos and Gil Bellows. “Awake” is set after a sudden global event wipes out all electronics and takes away humankind’s ability [...]

  • Woody Allen

    Woody Allen's 'A Rainy Day in New York' to Open Deauville Film Festival

    After being shelved by Amazon Studios in the U.S., Woody Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York” will be opening the 45th edition of the Deauville American Film Festival in France this fall. “A Rainy Day in New York,” which stars Timotheé Chalamet and Elle Fanning, will be the 8th film by Allen to play [...]

  • Phyllis Nagy

    Writers Guild Candidate Phyllis Nagy Warns of Risks to Residuals (EXCLUSIVE)

    Phyllis Nagy, who is challenging Writers Guild of America West President David Goodman, has warned that guild leaders are endangering future residuals. Nagy, in a message posted Wednesday on her Writers Forward Together site, said residual payments are the most important issue the WGA faces during upcoming negotiations on a successor deal to the current master [...]

  • Geneva Wasserman

    Condé Nast Taps Film Veteran Geneva Wasserman as SVP of Motion Pictures

    Condé Nast Entertainment hired Geneva Wasserman as senior vice president of motion pictures, overseeing development of the media company’s slate of feature film properties. Wasserman, a nearly 20-year veteran of the entertainment industry, most recently served as co-founder and executive producer of production firm Project Z Entertainment. She takes over the role at CNE after [...]

  • Annabelle Wallis'The Loudest Voice' TV show

    James Wan's New Horror Film Casts 'Loudest Voice' Star Annabelle Wallis (EXCLUSIVE)

    Annabelle Wallis, who most recently appeared in Showtime’s Roger Ailes miniseries “The Loudest Voice,” has been tapped to star in James Wan’s top secret horror project, sources tell Variety. Wan is tackling the movie this fall before he jumps into prep on the “Aquaman” sequel with Jason Momoa at the top of 2020. Plot details [...]

  • New York Festival Sets Documentaries on

    New York Film Festival Sets Documentaries on Merce Cunningham, Roy Cohn

    Films on Merce Cunningham, Roy Cohn and Oliver Sacks are among the notable titles set for the Spotlight on Documentary lineup at the 57th New York Film Festival. Alla Kovgan’s “Cunningham 3D” centers on dancer and choreographer Cunningham, who was at the forefront of American modern dance for half a century. The Cohn documentary “Bully. [...]

  • CineLink Work in Progress Provides Step

    CineLink Work in Progress Provides Step Onto International Stage

    The Sarajevo Film Festival’s CineLink Work in Progress section has become a major venue for filmmakers from Southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa – this year it saw nearly 70 submissions, the most in the past decade. The competitive program boasts a large number of projects that have gone on to achieve major [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content