Learning History From Movies: The Wrong Place To Look

Ted Kennedy YouTube screenshot/ABC News

Charles J. Glasser, Jr., Esq. Professor, Media Ethics and Law, NYU
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Right from the start, you could see that this month’s release of the film “Chappaquiddick” was going to ruffle some feathers. No American family has been considered as close to royalty as the Kennedys. And where there is royalty, there are royalists. When these royalists are not shrieking at the current state of affairs in Washington, they are likely pining for the romanticized soft-focus legacy of “Camelot.”

“Chappaquiddick” puts a sharper focus on that legacy by reminding the world that the youngest of Joe Kennedy’s sons — and his last hope for another Kennedy White House — was either negligently or recklessly responsible for the gruesome drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

But are movies about political figures or events the right place to learn about history? And more interesting still, what do we learn about political actors today by the way that they react to such films?

Bringing moments that matter to life

Last year, “The Post” told the story of Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post and her undeniably brave decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. It’s hard to argue that too few people – especially college students – even know about that chapter of American history or understand its significance.

It was a watershed moment in American political consciousness, because never before had trusted and venerated institutions so explicitly exposed the U.S. government’s involvement in political assassination, spying on foreign allies, and a litany of other covert activities designed to destabilize governments. So great was the shock and shame that when Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) read the Papers into the public record he wept with embarrassment at what Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had done in our names. We were no longer the good guys.

By this reasoning, politically historical movies can play an important role in whetting the intellectual appetite of those who want to learn history. But do these movies distort history, and are such distortions so great they nullify the “awareness raising” value? I don’t think so.

Poetic license to make a point

As in all historical movies, there were factual errors in “The Post.” “The Post” is not a documentary,” Donald Graham told me in an interview, and conceded that “filmmakers have a pretty hard challenge trying to compress one chapter of a longer book into a movie.”

Graham went on to point out that the film does not completely track the telling of events in Katharine Grahams’ Pulitzer-winning autobiographical “Personal History” but “on the whole told the story of the Pentagon Papers well in the larger sense.” Graham pointed out a few errors in the film not previously reported. For example, according to Graham the filmmakers “invented a character, a board of directors member who was allegedly critical of Ms. Graham and questioned her ability to lead because “she’s a woman.” To the contrary, says Graham, “That never happened. She was warmly supported in her decisions by the entire board.”

One must assume that the filmmakers invented that character to create an obvious way of showing the sexism that Katharine Graham had to overcome. Similarly, the movie has Ms. Graham saying that she was going to publish the story “even though no lawyer would approve it.” Again, explains Graham, that part was wholly untrue: “Ben Bradlee specifically reached out to [famed attorney] Edward Bennett Williams who insisted that the newspaper publish the Pentagon Papers.” The filmmaker’s fabrication, although inaccurate, heightened the dramatic risk for the film’s central subject.

The film’s poetic license of casting The Washington Post and Katharine Graham as lone crusaders drew bitter criticism from The New York Times, who at the time was well ahead of The Washington Post in covering the story. Attorney James Goodale, who represented the Times in that era told the Columbia Journalism Review that the movie was a “rip-off,” specifically regarding the rival newspaper’s coverage. “It really gets you pissed when you think about it” he said. “I do not care to speak of it,” wrote Max Frankel, 87, the Times Washington bureau chief when the Papers were published, and eventually executive editor, in an email to CJR. He did, however, call “The Post” a “stupid project.” When asked about the Times’ complaints, Graham — whose family was not involved in the screenwriting — said graciously that he was “very sympathetic to their feelings and that [Times Publisher] Punch Sulzberger unquestionably deserved great credit for the Times’ work on the story.”

Other recent films about political history have been subjected to factual criticism. In “The Darkest Hour” one of the film’s most stirring moments never happened at all. Winston Churchill did not ride a subway train (excuse me, “a tube”) and hold an impromptu speech stirring the patriotic feelings of the common folks like Henry V inspiring the troops on St. Crispin’s Day before the battle of Agincourt. In fairness though, filmmakers do not have hundreds of pages in which to make a point. Especially in movies that are dramatizations instead of documentaries, poetic license may be required to compress several hundred pages into a single 10-minute scene.

There are entire webpages dedicated to pointing out historical inaccuracies in films. For example, “The Patriot” left out the inconvenient fact that Francis Marion (played by Mel Gibson) hunted Native Americans for sport and frequently raped his female slaves. In “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” we see Ivan the Terrible courting Queen Elizabeth in the movie. Romantic? Maybe. Accurate? No. He died in 1584, the year before the film was set. And please, let’s not even get started on the insane conspiracy-fest that is Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”

If we’re willing to accept historical movies as somewhat fictionalized, there is value in the chance that such a film might spark a deeper and more academic interest in the subject matter. I must confess though, I can’t but help be reminded of Dan Rather’s “fake but true” approach to journalism that led to his firing from CBS, where falsities are used to propagate an unproven truth. The difference of course is that movies require some degree of suspension of our disbelief. Documentaries and news are no place for fictionalization.

Why re-tell it? the illiberal liberals’ denial syndrome

This brings us back to the reaction to the release of “Chappaquiddick.” On the weekend of the film’s release, The New York Times published an Op/Ed by Neil Gabler who called the film “outright character assassination.” (Gabler is working on a biography of Ted Kennedy and one suspects from his fevered outrage that it’s more of a hagiography than a critical assessment). In a preemptive move to dissuade people from seeing the film, Gabler says “no one but the most lunatic conspiracy theorists see this as anything but a tragic accident in which nothing much was covered up.” Despite the gaslighting, industry trade data shows that Gabler is not as influential as he wishes: the film earned between $5 and 6 million in its premiere weekend.

There’s a certain degree of denial at work when people faced with an unpleasant fact say “we know this already. There’s no point in talking about it.” This effect goes beyond mere movie critics: Politico reports that former Kennedy staffers refuse to see the movie. Lawyer Greg Craig, who joined Kennedy’s staff in 1984 and later served as White House counsel to President Obama told Politico “I don’t believe there is anything about this tragedy that is going to change Ted Kennedy’s legacy,” he said, adding he “doesn’t feel the need to see the film.” Tony Podesta, who worked on Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign and was recently forced to resign from his multimillion dollar lobbying post after scrutiny from the Mueller investigation, feels the same way. He told Politico that “He doesn’t plan to see the movie and hasn’t discussed Chappaquiddick with anyone.” Most tellingly, Podesta refers to Kopechne’s death as “a footnote to history.” Jason Clarke, who played Kennedy in the film said the film “doesn’t try to sensationalize” the accident that Kennedy failed to report for 10 hours.

A young woman’s death at the hands of a U.S. senator is more than a “footnote to history.” Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Gary Thompson asks the central question: “The facts of the case have been chewed over for decades, so why retell it?”

Thompson explains: “For one thing, there are details here worth recounting: The movie quotes crime scene investigators who conclude that Kopechne did not die instantly, that she fought for survival at some length, during which time a prompt reporting of the accident may well have saved her life […] viewing these events from the perspective of our changed Time’s Up culture gives them new meaning. Young women like Kopechne were exploited, and they were expendable. Accountability in her death becomes secondary to the damage-control efforts initiated by the powerful, connected Kennedy family.”

The Oxford Dictionary defines “liberal” as one “willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.” Yet this is not the first time alleged liberals (yes, I said alleged) have rallied to protect the Kennedy “legacy” from “new ideas.” Brave New Films, an independent film company sponsored by George Soros, Barbara Streisand and other left-wing millionaires went as far as to organize a boycott against The History Channel, demanding that the channel cease airing a 2010 series that did not follow the Kennedy worship line.

If these history films are not taken at face value but instead encourage people to read William Manchester, William L. Shirer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro and other real historians, that’s a good thing. Protecting a legacy by censorship, bullying, gaslighting and minimalization is neither good, nor genuinely “liberal.”

Charles Glasser (@MediaEthicsGuy) was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook”, teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.