For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about movies and historical accuracy. Among last year’s eight Best Picture nominees, four were about real people. I saw three of them – Imitation Game, American Sniper, and Selma – and not one of them was preceded by any sort of disclaimer. No This story was inspired by real events.or any of the like. And without any disclaimer, the implicit message is plain: What you’re about to see is true. This is the way it was.
Except it wasn’t. Not always, anyway. The falsehoods in American Sniper and Selma have gotten most of the attention, but I suspect that Imitation Game is actually the one that most poorly imitates the truth. My friend Jim Baker describes the movie as “a load of rubbish surrounding a very heartfelt performance,” and I think that’s spot-on.*
Of course, for every critic who decries a filmmaker playing fast and loose with the facts, there’s another who will defend to the death the filmmaker’s right to stray from the facts when they get in the way of a good story. Or especially when they get in the way of a more fundamental truth. Or as Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”
Well, that was easy for him to say. An artist can always justify making shit up. But even if good ol’ Pablo was right, isn’t that just begging the question? Because while he’s defined art, what about truth?
In this context, it’s impossible to define truth for everyone. For critics of Selma, turning Lyndon Baines Johnson into a sort of villain – in two brief scenes, at least – ruins the rest of a largely truthful movie. For critics of American Sniper, inventing scenes and characters and a long-distance sniper duel, along with the general dehumanization of Iraqi citizens, spoil what might have been a simple character study, or an indictment of a war that’s been lost, and should never have been fought.
Actually, the arguments against American Sniper, while often misguided, are slightly more nuanced than that. My point is that while the filmmakers undoubtedly found some truth in Chris Kyle’s story, they also missed some. There’s no one truth, and your opinion about the movie is quite likely colored by which truth you think was most important to tell.
Which is to say that art is largely a matter of taste, after all.
I saw Oliver Stone’s JFK when it came out. I went with my friend Mike Kopf to the Glenwood Theater in Overland Park, Kansas. Maybe half an hour into the movie, Mike leaned over to me, murmured, “This is bullshit, man,” and walked out. Fortunately there was a bookstore next door, so I knew where to find him later.
I have complicated feelings about JFK. Mike’s right: The movie is unadulterated bullshit, almost every minute of it (and there are a lot of minutes). It’s also wildly entertaining. How does one balance the entertainment with the lies? How does one balance Stone’s artistry with the societal damage (however small) that results when a blockbuster movie comes up with a completely counterfactual history of a momentous historical moment?
I don’t know. My feelings about JFK remain complicated, nearly 25 years later. At this point, though, I think I come down against the movie. There is a truth here, of course: Our elected and appointed officials are often dishonest and corrupt, and we must remain ever-vigilant. I just don’t think JFK earns the right to tell that truth. If Oliver Stone arrived at some sort of truth here, it was accidental. So I’m not inclined to give him any credit for it.
What does any of this have to do with baseball? Well, not much. But it has a great deal to do with baseball movies, no?
According to this list, the sixth, seventh, and eighth-greatest baseball movies of all time are 42, Moneyball, and A League of Their Own. I would rank42 and Moneyball higher – three and four, maybe, behind only The Bad News Bears and Bull Durham. But it’s a perfectly fine list. And we’ve certainly been blessed lately, with 42 and Moneyball both coming out so recently. Depending on what’s released in the next year or two, this might even wind up being a Golden Era for Baseball Movies.
What really distinguishes Bad News Bears and Bull Durham, though? The people in those movies, however fictional, still somehow feel so real. This is how kids really talk, when an adult’s not around to rap their knuckles. This is how a well-read journeyman catcher might respond to the end of his playing career. Bears and Bull Durham have endured because they feel true, even while embedded in artifice. This is what Picasso was talking about.
I have written extensively about both Moneyball (for example, here) and 42 (here and here). In both movies, great liberties were taken with the facts. It’s easy to argue, especially in the case of Moneyball, that some of these liberties were both excessive and needless. We might examine each of the filmmaker’s choices, just as we might examine each of a pitcher’s pitches during his seven innings on the mound. Ultimately, though, what do we care about? If the pitcher throws the wrong pitch in the wrong spot and gives up a home run, but leaves the game with a 4-2 lead, do we really care much about that bad pitch?
I wish Philip Seymour Hoffman hadn’t been cast as Art Howe – actually, I wish they’d just made up a name for the manager – and I wish Jackie Robinson hadn’t hit a home run he didn’t, in real life, actually hit. The facts are usually so incredible, you wonder why these artists just keep on ignoring them.
But they’ve always ignored them, and will keep on ignoring them. Whether you’ll excuse some of our greatest artists depends almost entirely upon which truths you value most. And which truth.