"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, September 08, 2006

If It's on Film, It's Got to Be True

Realizing that many people get their education in history from the movies, Michael Moore dashed off a passionate note to Roger Ebert: "If I state something as a fact, I need the viewers to trust that those facts are correct." (And we do, Michael.)

So Bill Clinton and members of his administration have a bulletproof point here: If Sandy Berger didn't hang up the phone on a CIA operative ready to whack Osama bin Laden, and if Madeleine Albright didn't tip off Pakistan resulting in Osama slipping away on another occasion, such actions should not be attributed to actual political personages---living or dead.

There is always a duty to truth. Now, it really doesn't matter that the Philadelphia Eagle in Invincible didn't, in actual fact, scoop up the fumble and return it for the winning touchdown, and it's only a minor irritation that people think the Roman emperor Commodus died at the hands of Russell Crowe and not the Pretorian Guard. But the acts ascribed to Berger and Albright are more of the same info-nonsense, and are potentially far more corrosive. The Clintonites have a reason to kick.

Apparently unnoticed by the producers of The Path To 9/11, though, was that the Clinton administration often and provably did nothing (and worse) when it could have: turning down Sudan's offer to hand over bin Laden, and instituting the perverse legal "wall" of separation between intelligence agencies that likely let the 9-11 attackers slip through. (The latter being the work of administration attorney Jamie Gorelick, who eventually sat on the 9-11 commission. Hmmm.)

The proper slapping down of the producers' overreach and dramatic license, which in fine Hollywood tradition did not let the truth stand in the way of a good story, will result in an apparent vindication of the Clinton administration, and throw more dirt on where the skeletons are really buried. And that's the real offense to history and to truth, especially in these epistemologically troubled times.

Bill Clinton's lucky streak continues. He dropped the ball many times, but so far there has been no Eagle to pick it up and run it back.

"It is critically important to the safety of our nation that our citizens, and particularly our school children, understand what actually happened and why - so that we can proceed from a common understanding of what went wrong and act with unity to make our country safer."---Jamie Gorelick

You got one right for once, ma'am. The tragedies of the Clinton administration were never in what they did, but in what they couldn't bring themselves to do.

Did I mention I'm from Philadelphia?

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Late Add: John Podhoretz agrees, to the letter. Scary.

1 comment:

Akaky said...

This, I think, brings up the question of just how much accuracy can anyone expect from any art form depicting a historical event. Hollywood is notorious for rewriting history in order to get a better story on film, but it isn’t just Hollywood that has done this over the years. In Henry V, for example, Shakespeare has his Chorus apologize to the audience for mangling the full course of his characters’ glory and for turning the accomplishment of many years into an hourglass. The play contains the battle of Agincourt and then follows the battle with the Treaty of Troyes, where in fact Henry fought the battle in 1415 and signed the treaty with the French in 1420. In 1942, Warner Brothers had Gary Cooper play the great Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees. One of the high points of that film is Cooper’s rendition of Gehrig’s famous speech at Yankee Stadium, the one in which he proclaimed himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Cooper gives a moving performance, giving the speech wonderfully, until you realize, as many people did at the time, that Gary Cooper gives the speech in his own Montana accent, whereas Lou Gehrig not only played for a New York team, he was born and raised in New York City, and spoke with a New York accent. And in the greatest of all historical fictions, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Tolstoy depicts Field Marshal Kutuzov as an earthy son of the Russian soil, almost a peasant military genius, not at all like the smooth courtier the actual Kutuzov really was.

So, what is the responsibility of artists when it comes to depicting actual events? I think that the standard in such a case must be that the producers and writers do their level best to be historically accurate. You do not have major historical characters say or do things they did not actually say or do. The producers should restrict compression of time and character to events and people not absolutely central to the story. If a historical character must deal with a fictional character, then it behooves the artist putting these two people together to have the historical character say or do nothing that would offend the historical record. In Shelby Foote’s Shiloh and in Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, for example, both authors made certain that they had their historical characters interact with the fictional ones in the places where the real people really were at the time depicted, and both men had all their characters hew closely to the historical record.

In the case of this film, if the charges of slanting are true, and I should point out that as I write this it is the Saturday before the film is broadcast, so I have not seen it yet, then at least some of the Clinton administration officials upset by this film have every right to be. Ms. Albright, for one, is a woman whose opinions on foreign policy I almost never agree with, but she has spent years serving this country faithfully and deserves better than to have someone basically accuse her of tipping off Osama bin Laden that the United States had launched a cruise missile strike against him. This, I think, is uncalled for and unnecessary.

As for Mr. Berger’s complaint, it strikes me that Mr. Berger is singularly lacking in irony here. A man who tries to distort the historical record by stealing documents out of the National Archives should be the last person on the planet to accuse others of trying to alter history. Still, his ire, and the ire of the Clintonistas is understandable; no one likes being accused of aiding and abetting a mass murderer, no one likes being accused of negligence and dereliction of duty. It is easy, five years after the event, to pick out the relevant intelligence from all of the background noise, to see the dots that someone should have connected, to see that certain policies harmed rather than helped those responsible for the day to day running of the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies. And yet, for eight years, these were the people responsible for those agencies.

What happened in New York on September 11, 2001 did not come out of the blue; it was the final blow in an ever-mounting series of attacks on Americans and American interests around the world. From the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 to the attacks on the Khobar towers in 1996 to the East African embassy bombings in 1998 to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, al-Qaeda and its minions hit the United States again and again, even, at one point, publicly declaring war on the United States. The Clinton Administration did launch missile attacks on al-Qaeda camps after these attacks, and did set up intelligence groups to track and locate bin Laden, but it is clear that they did not take the threat seriously enough and neither did the incoming Bush Administration in 2001. Both administrations dropped the ball when it came to this threat, both administrations refusing to take bin Laden at his word. Both administrations filed him away as a minor annoyance, a man capable of minor terrorist attacks that might get a few people killed but unable to harm any long-term American interest. Both administrations were wrong, and three thousand people paid for their mistakes with their lives.