Truth, lies and Oscars

Posted: Mar 21, 2002 12:00 AM
Now that the ballots are in for the Academy Awards, ready for counting and for the award of the Oscars on Sunday night, we can reflect calmly on the vitriol surrounding the character of John Nash, the genius mathematician as played by Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind." The Drudge Report set off the controversy when it noted that incidents and attitudes in the book on which the movie was based were eliminated in the movie. The most contentious omission was the matter of the subject's anti-Semitic rants, in particular, one in which he ranted that "the root of all evil, as far as my personal life is concerned, are Jews." Since Academy Awards are big business and "A Beautiful Mind" has been nominated for eight Oscars, including best actor and best picture, those who have a lot to gain are crying "foul." They see the reporting as a nasty scheme to turn a lot of Jewish voters in the Academy against the film. John Nash, they note, also thought he was emperor of Antarctica. Lucky for him, offended penguins and elephant seals don't vote for Oscars. Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriter, and John Nash, still a real live man at 73, defend themselves well enough. A writer selects "facts," embellishes them and changes them for dramatic reasons to build up audience appeal and viewer sympathy and the character is perceived as proportionately larger on the big screen than on the written page. John Nash says that he was insane, a paranoid schizophrenic, when he ranted against the Jews (and about Antarctica). Says the Jewish screenwriter: Blaming the sick Nash for delusional rants is "like blaming a man with cancer for losing weight." We're frequently treated to distorted history and biography in the movies. The problem is that many viewers get no further than a movie in discerning the truth. A viewer of the movie "JFK" for example, walks out thinking that President Kennedy's assassination was the result of a loopy New Orleans conspiracy. "JFK" was hatched in the fevered imagination of Oliver Stone and is hooted at by nearly everyone with any real knowledge of what happened at Dallas. So sloppy are the "facts" presented in the movie "Pearl Harbor" that you could believe after seeing it that the only reason the Japanese bombed our fleet was to get a little more oil, and that the greatest burden of the war fell on the sailors and nurses who suffered romantus interruptus. Movies based on history or prominent lives often reflect a biased point of view and a lot of poetic license. In an educated and free society, the truth usually emerges in other places, albeit slowly. But when so many young people who can't or don't read very much get so much "information" from movies and videos, it's likely to take an extremely long time for them to question the accuracy of what they see on a screen. The exceptions leap out at us. The new Mel Gibson movie, "We Were Soldiers," is not only refreshingly authentic, based on a true story that took place at the beginning of the American part of the Vietnam War in November 1965, but actually shows Americans in a positive light. Most previous movies reflected mostly the politics of the moviemakers. We have an entire generation of moviegoers who rarely experienced a reasoned point of view about that war in the movies - or in much of the media. The controversy over the stretching of historical truth in fictional narratives is an old one. Shakespeare depicted Richard III as a villainous and deformed "foul bunch-back'd toad" because Richard III was the last in the line of kings that preceded the Tudor dynasty, from which Queen Elizabeth descended. Hers was the applause the Bard wanted. In fact, Shakespeare's plays are filled with historical anachronisms that are defended as imagination outrunning fact. Next Saturday, the History Channel grapples with the problem of history in movies, handing out its fourth annual "Harry Awards," named for Herodotus, the Ionian Greek who is considered the father of history. These awards go to films made this past year that adhere most closely to the history on which they are based, history being loosely defined. We should all be reminded of a cautionary tale. When Herodotus, born about 490 BC was about 10 or 11, he stood in his native city Halicarnassus in Asia Minor and watched his city's fleet sail out to join the great expedition of Xerxes against Athens. The young Herodotus tugged at the cloak of his mother and asked, "Why? Why?" She didn't answer, so the conceit of classicists goes, and thus he grew up to become a historian. His is a question we shouldn't expect Hollywood, which is only in the entertainment business, after all, to answer for us.