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