History according to Hollywood

Do movies distort our views of past events? Or do they do a service by arousing our curiosity to find out what really happened?

At the moment, it's hard to imagine Hollywood making a movie based on the events of Sept. 11. But the industry track record shows it is merely a matter of time. NBC has delayed the season debut of "West Wing" to insert a new episode in which a fictional president responds to a terrorist attack (airing Oct. 3, see page 16). For several months, CBS has been developing a miniseries based on Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombings.

Hollywood continues to mine history - recent or distant - and attract the inevitable controversy that follows its attempts to depict real people and events. A chorus of British voices, for example, continues to protest the negative image of British soldiers in Mel Gibson's Revolutionary War epic "The Patriot" (2000), while a wide range of American voices now question how much of a masterpiece D.W. Griffith's 1915 film"The Birth of a Nation" can be, with its heavily racist images of American history.

But as polls show that fewer and fewer people get their information about the world - past or present - from reading, questions about Hollywood's responsibility to re-create history accurately take on new urgency.

"Television and movies are [a] major source of information now," says historian Steven Gillon, dean of the Honors College at University of Oklahoma. "It's not books. It's not what they learn in the classroom. And I think what happens is our perception of ourselves and our understanding of the past, are being distorted for the purpose of reaching a large audience."

Despite criticism such as this, many filmmakers say they feel the burden of depicting history accurately. "There's two kinds of authenticity," says Tom Hanks, executive producer of HBO's "Band of Brothers," a series based on the experiences of real American paratroopers during World War II.

"There is one that says all the buttons are right, and all the ammunition is correct, and all the buildings look like they looked in the photograph. That's a relatively easy thing to accomplish," says Hanks, who developed his interest in World War II stories after starring in Steven Spielberg's epic 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan."

"The thing that's much harder" to get right, Hanks says, "is literally the motivations and the nature of the interplay between the characters."

In developing the script for "Band of Brothers," which was based on Stephen Ambrose's book of the same title, Hanks says he tried to adhere to the kind of authenticity that he considered the most important. "We said, 'Look, if we can't be absolutely truthful to what they said and did at any given moment, we must as least be as authentic as possible, so that it still adheres to the framework of the reality of being there at that moment.' "

Spicing up history

Film also has dramatic requirements, which moviemakers can't ignore. While NBC's "West Wing" doesn't depict actual events, it does take place in the nation's symbolic heart, the White House.

The creator and writer of the series, Aaron Sorkin, says he feels the burden of both history and drama. "The real White House has nowhere near as much movement [as the show]," Mr. Sorkin says. "They're making policy, not TV." It's a challenge, he adds, to make it realistic and interesting, "because it's not that way in real life."

Beyond that, real events often involve the contributions of many. Focusing on a single point of view is a dramatic technique favored by many filmmakers. "You take up a character and look at events through their eyes," says Ed Gernon, the producer of numerous fact-based films such as "Nuremberg" and "Joan of Arc."

"I have to get the facts right and make my best guess at the moral fiber of a human being," says the producer, who is developing a project about Adolf Hitler. But where does interpreting events for the sake of drama cross a line and turn a historical reality into a lie?

"In the 'Hoffa' movie, [director] Danny DeVito portrayed Hoffa as an American hero," says Bob Pavich, a Detroit News reporter who covered the labor leader's career.

"If our legacy is that movie of Jimmy Hoffa, then we're in real trouble, because that's not an accurate portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa. But that's what we're left with. And the following generations, those people that see that movie, that will be Jimmy Hoffa for them. That's a very dangerous thing, and it comes very close to propaganda."

Movies inspire reading

Filmmakers with a strong point of view about their subject matter, such as director Oliver Stone's "JFK," have had to face allegations of irresponsibility in their portrayals of important historical figures.

Actor and producer Hanks, for one, suggests the concern is misplaced. "I think the audience is much smarter than a lot of people give it credit for being," he says, "and I think you have to be incredibly naive to look at any one movie and view that as being the gospel anything."

"Movies and television that deal with historical subjects drive people to read the real history and the real books," argues David Brown, producer of the History Channel's ongoing series "History versus Hollywood." "The sale of books that are touched on by movies and television shows invariably goes up because people are curious: 'Was it real?'

That may be true, historian Gillon says, but his classroom experience gives him pause. "I have students who cite the 'JFK' movie as a source in papers that they write. I mean, that's scary."

Gillon is not among the Jeremiahs who would shut down Hollywood's history machine, though. "I think what we have to do, filmmakers and historians, [is to] get involved in this discussion," he says.

After all, he points out, filmmakers are not making movies for historians. "They are producing films that are designed to reach [ordinary] people." To that end, he has consulted for the History Channel's series "History versus Hollywood."

Historians, Gillon says, have a responsibility to try to help educate the public.

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