Artistic license gets an audit in Hollywood's awards season

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Posted: Jan 09, 2015 12:22 PM
Artistic license gets an audit in Hollywood's awards season

NEW YORK (AP) — After Stephen Hawking privately screened "The Theory of Everything," he judged the affectionate portrait of his life, from student to world-famous theoretical physicist, with a succinct verdict.

"Broadly true," Hawking pronounced.

Not everyone, though, is so polite about the limitations inherent in recreating life and time in a neatly dramatic two hours. As if on cue, debates of accuracy have arrived in this year's awards season just as they have in past years for movies like "Argo," ''The Social Network" and "Zero Dark Thirty."

"American Sniper," ''Foxcatcher" and most notably "Selma" — which has been roiled by criticism over its depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson — have returned the familiar drama of life vs. art to Oscar season. Before being taken to the Academy Awards, the movies are now taken to school.

Fictionalizations of historical events and real people have long prompted hand-wringing, but artistic license seems increasingly under threat of being revoked. The friction has become its own sideshow, pulling filmmakers into the cable-news cacophony.

The biggest target this year has been Ava DuVernay's "Selma," an acclaimed drama about the famous 1965 protest march. It, too, is broadly (and often specifically) true and a rousing, expansive picture of the multitudes that unite in effecting change from the streets of Alabama to the White House.

But the scenes showing Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) have been harshly criticized for mischaracterizing Johnson as a foot-dragger to black voting rights, rather than the MLK collaborator historians and former aides like Joseph A. Califano Jr. (who penned a scathing Op-Ed for the Washington Post) insist he was.

Many have called the large reaction to one issue in "Selma" overinflated, particularly as it comes after decades of films focusing on white protagonists in stories of black rights. DuVernay says that the "broad strokes" of the LBJ portrayal are true and that he was a "reluctant hero" in the timing of the Voting Rights Act. She calls the controversy a "feeding frenzy of the media."

"You can look at everything with a lens of scrutiny and miss the greater truth that the artists are trying to share," DuVernay said in an interview. "It's just a different art form than a doc or a history book. The sooner folks realize that, the sooner we can let this art breath and live a little bit."

The unique photographic power of the movies to recreate physical reality makes the medium especially prone to issues of fact and fiction. Many still take for fact the conspiracy theories floated by Oliver Stone in "JFK."

The outcry in late 2012 over Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," which suggested intelligence gathered through torture helped lead to Osama bin Laden's capture, was partly motivated by establishing the historical record for the public. Senators Diane Feinstein and John McCain claimed the film was "perpetuating the myth that torture is effective" and told the film's makers they had "a social and moral obligation to get the facts right."

Yet getting the facts right isn't always possible to do with certainty or to everyone's satisfaction, while still telling an entertaining story.

"It's impossible," says DuVernay. "If you try to satisfy other people, you will fail. I've made the film that is my vision for telling the story, and that vision is not one that I intend to have strangled by facts and perspectives and opinions that are impossible to portray to please everyone. What we wanted to do is capture the spirit of the time."

With the notable exception of "Zero Dark Thirty," few films been much punished at the box office or by the motion picture academy for lapses in accuracy.

Before "The King's Speech" went on to win best picture at the 2011 Oscars, critics called it "a gross falsification of history" for glossing over Edward VIII's Hitler-sympathizing. Ben Affleck's "Argo" minimized Canada's role in the Iranian rescue. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" set Connecticut lawmakers in an uproar for incorrectly showing the state's representatives as voting against the 13th Amendment.

In this year's Oscar race, in which "Selma" is considered among the front-runners, there's no shortage of fodder for debate. The World War II tale "The Imitation Game," for one, significantly boils down the code-breaking collaborators at Britain's Bletchley Park, focusing solely on Alan Turing instead.

Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" renders lethal Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle's life in mythical proportions, avoiding more disturbing aspects of his life. (Kyle boasted of killing looters after Hurricane Katrina.) A Guardian column blared: "The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?"

The pressure can be equally strong on the other side of the screen. Kyle's father reportedly told Eastwood before production started: "Disrespect my son and I'll unleash hell on you."

Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz had been a passionate supporter of Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," a drama about John du Pont's tragic murder of Schultz's brother, Dave. But Schultz recently exploded in a Facebook post about a scene in the film that he felt implied a sexual relationship between him and du Pont.

"You crossed the line Miller. We're done," wrote Schultz, who also threatened to end Miller's career over the dispute.

In an earlier interview, Miller said that they argued over Schultz's hesitance at including less-than-flattering aspects of his life before "a come-to-Jesus moment."

"I said I really don't want to make a film about you or anybody living if I don't have a concession that you're going to sign off on anything that I might discover and deem appropriate so long as it doesn't violate or contradict any fundamental truth about who you are or what happened, as I will judge and not you or anybody else," said Miller. "I said I can walk away and it's fine."

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP