Steven Spielberg once famously said, “Artists use historically accurate wallpaper to tell the truth.”
Okay, he never said those exact words, but he has built a career around the idea. From Schindler’s List to Amistad to Saving Private Ryan to Munich to Lincoln (all of which, I’m sure, will one day be released as a DVD boxed set called “You Didn’t Become a High School History Teacher to Do Work”) Spielberg has pioneered his own, expensive subgenre of historical fiction in which slavish devotion to period detail is presented as art.
I’m going to pause here for a moment to acknowledge a peculiarity about film: it’s a collaborative art form. Or rather, it’s a collaboration of art forms. I don’t want to take anything away from the very talented craftsmen and women of the art and sound departments on these films, who no doubt put a tremendous amount of effort into research and production and/or insisting that their spouses only address them as Mary Todd Lincoln’s duvet cover. I do, however, have some misgivings about the producer/director who decided the best use of those artists was as living photocopy machines.
Getting back to Spielberg and his oeuvre: I have two beefs with this style of filmmaking. First, what is the point? I don’t mean that rhetorically; I am legitimately unsure of the goal of you artistic endeavor. If you are using historical events as a framework for a story that is meant to communicate some fundamental human truth(s) (Argo, for example) then historical accuracy is ultimately irrelevant, and in some cases a hindrance. If, however, your goal is to be the most detailed video history book, then your movie is a hollow exercise in technique, and you should go do something else with your life.
My second, and much larger, problem with this style of movie is that it ultimately tries to have it both ways. Movies like Lincoln want to be both well-crafted human stories and perfectly accurate accounts of fact. But you can’t be both. The imposition of a narrative arc and all its trappings takes your story out of the realm of fact and into that of myth. (And we can throw movies like Zero Dark Thirty in here too.) This would be fine if you weren’t also trying to sell us on your truthfulness. Because when you gush publicly about the accuracy of something as minor as the drapes in your movie, you are making an implicit claim about the big stuff as well.