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Movies Often Play Games With History — And Filmgoers Embrace Them

Having spent many years in journalism, I do not believe everything I read, nor, for that matter, everything I see in the movies. Now along come some academic studies telling us disturbing news: Filmgoers tend to be believers. When they see a movie, they accept the facts as, well, factual.

Should we tell this to the folks who gave us “Selma” or “The Imitation Game” or even “American Sniper”? Even though I didn’t buy their versions of reality, I liked all three films. Maybe I was too uncritical.

“Our minds are not well equipped to sort good sources from bad ones,” contends Jeffrey M. Zacks, a psychology professor from Washington U. in St. Louis, who probed this phenomenon. “Studies show that if you watch a film, even one concerning historical events about which you are informed, your beliefs well be reshaped by ‘facts’ that are not factual.”

All this is daunting, since political subtext always emerges at the culmination of every Oscar campaign, perhaps because the pundits run out of things to say. Hence random critics and bloggers now assure us that “Selma” got the Lyndon Johnson story wrong, and “The Imitation Game” misreported the end of Alan Turing’s life. Further, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis decided at the 11th hour that “American Sniper” was “an anguished and angry movie about a man who becomes a cog in a war machine.” Did Clint Eastwood misrepresent Chris Kyle?

Upon reflection, none of these issues affected my assessment of these films. Nor am I persuaded that the membership of the Academy is swayed by political leanings or factual misrepresentations. Some activists, I realize, have suggested that Academy members are closet racists while others contend they are closet liberals. I have never seen any data revealing the political or economic status of the 6,000 members (of which I am one) — mainly because none exists.

At Academy screenings or membership meetings, the faces of Oscar voters do not scream “Hollywood.” Rather they seem like folks who work for a living — editors, sound mixers, assistant directors, actors who are between jobs, writers who are always between jobs. In many cases, their parents also worked in the industry.

My suspicion is that the Academy is anything but a fraternity of wealth, and that if talent agents and managers were invited to the party, the median income would climb exponentially. Due to a freak of history, while press agents are voting members (and often leaders of the Academy, as at present), dealmakers are scorned, as though they would corrupt the aesthetic balance.

But while facts and political subtext may not affect Oscar voting, filmgoers at large may be far more impacted and, if so, we likely should hold our filmmakers to a more rigorous standard. The ’60s and ’70s, of course, marked the heyday of aggressively message-laden pictures, from John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam diatribes to fiercely liberal tracts like “WUSA,” starring Paul Newman. Both stars were unembarrassed about attaching their names and reputations to political movies; neither was strong on historic veracity or dedicated to fact-checking.

I have similar reservations about today’s expanding genre of faith-based films. For a producer like Mark Burnett, the aim is to expand the ranks of churchgoers by rearranging history for filmgoers.

Are historical reimaginings effective? In Zacks’ study, published in Psychological Science, students were assigned to read historical essays, then watch clips from historical movies containing information that was contradictory and inaccurate. The students accepted the movie versions in 30% of the cases. Perhaps the fake facts were more entertaining; history tells us they often are.

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