We’ve all met them: the railway enthusiast who moans about the wrong carriages being pulled by the wrong steam train in a period drama. The music buff who points out that particular Rolling Stones track wasn’t released in 1970, when the film is set. Or the weapons expert who couldn’t enjoy James Bond because the gun isn’t capable of firing that many bullets without reloading, the scientist who points out laser sound effects in Star Wars couldn’t be heard in the vacuum of space, etc, etc.
Take a bow, factual veracity bores.
I recently read an extensive article criticising Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk by pointing out, in eye-wateringly anal detail, that the film was rubbish because certain military sea vessels were not in use in 1940, but only from 1941. Well, that’s ruined my favourite film of last year…
Sarcasm aside, do factual veracity bores ever have a point? Well, most of the time I’d say no. Even films like JFK, which play very fast and loose with real events, I’m still inclined to give the benefit of the doubt if they are dramatically satisfying. Never let the facts get in the way of a damn good film.
And yet… every so often, I do draw the line. U-571 was a film that attempted to rewrite history in a particularly outrageous way by claiming that Americans were responsible for capturing an Enigma machine from a German submarine in World War II – an incident that helped turn the tide of the conflict. The film is loosely based on an incident where the British navy captured said Enigma machine (and more importantly code books) from a German U-boat at a point before the Americans even entered the war. When the film was released, Tony Blair told Parliament the film was an insult to the British navy, and those who fought and died in the incident. I agree with him. It’s also a dreadful film on many other levels, and the most honest thing about it is the tagline (“Nine men are about to change history.”).
Ultimately the deciding factors for whether factual veracity bores have a point are:
1) Can you suspend disbelief? Removing laser blast sounds from Star Wars would be scientifically accurate, but from an artistic point of view, it would utterly undermine the romantic, mythical tone of the film. I feel sorry for anyone who can’t suspend disbelief in that way.
2) In the case of historical details, are they merely small nits (the wrong piece of music here, the wrong steam train carriage there), or are they changes that could be considered offensive to the real people involved? Regarding the U-571 case, having the Americans capture the Enigma machine instead of the British is as absurd as having a film about a platoon of plucky covert-ops Brits single-handedly winning the Vietnam War.
3) Another question for films based on fact: Is it true to the spirit of what took place? Dramatic licence will always be necessary to craft a great story, so accepting that, does the film raise the issues and concerns raised by the true events, even if the true events occurred differently and less dramatically? If the answer is yes, then I don’t think there is a problem. If, say, In the Name of the Father ended as it did in real life, there would be no fiery courtroom speech from Emma Thompson, and the ending of the film would be a damp squib, even though the outcome would be the same. Or take the tense escapes at the finales of Argo or The Sound of Music. Neither proved such close, nerve-shredding calls in real life, but would a simple flight out of Iran, or train to Switzerland being nearly as satisfying as a cinematic third act? Of course not.