WaPo Writer: Twisting Facts in Political Movies Okay in Order to Tell Larger 'Truths'

Imagine a movie about Abraham Lincoln's assassination that neglects to include the character of John Wilkes Booth. Ridiculous, right? Well, that is pretty much what has happened in the movie Fair Game in which the person who leaked the name of Valerie Plame to Robert Novak, Richard Armitage, never appears in the film. So how to excuse such an absurd situation? Simple. Just write off complaints about this as political insider nitpicking. That is what Washington Post writer Ann Hornaday has done in her article that sets up laughable excuses in advance to what is sure to be a firestorm of criticism about the absence of the very leaker responsible for why we even know the name of Valerie Plame. The photo caption accompanying her story encapsulates her excuse:

In Washington, watching fact-based political movies has become a sport all its own, with viewers hyper-alert to mistakes, composite characters or real stories hijacked by political agendas. But what audiences often fail to take into account is that a too-literal allegiance to the facts can sometimes obscure a larger truth.

We know that it is 'Fair Game' that Hornaday is concerned about because she uses that film as the lead in her story:

Director Doug Liman has felt the moral presence of his late father more keenly than usual this year.  Liman, whose credits include "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," makes his first foray into fact-based drama this fall with a new film, "Fair Game" -- the story of former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson; his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson; and the events of 2003, when her identity as a CIA operative was leaked after her husband wrote an op-ed criticizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

While making "Fair Game," Liman said, he was acutely aware of how his father, Arthur -- who served as chief counsel for the Senate committee formed to investigate the Iran-contra scandal -- felt about politically inspired stories, especially Oliver Stone's "JFK."

No doubt that pressure will intensify when "Fair Game" arrives in theaters in November, as Washington audiences charge up their BlackBerrys and prepare to truth-squad the movie's tiniest details. (The film stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as Valerie and Joe Wilson.) They'll certainly apply the same scrutiny to "Casino Jack," George Hickenlooper's upcoming film starring Kevin Spacey as disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and, further down the road, Aaron Sorkin's proposed movie about John Edwards.

Got that? If you complain about the lack of leaker Richard Armitage who was the main reason for the film "Fair Game" to be made in the first place then you are a nitpicking truth-squader griping via your Blackberry.

Hornaday continues to justify the factual black hole in "Fair Game" by citing other movies which took liberties with the facts such as "All the President's Men."

It barely matters that the film's most iconic piece of dialogue -- "Follow the money" -- was never spoken in real life. According to Bob Woodward, whose source Deep Throat utters the deathless line in the film, the quote aptly captures everything his source, FBI associate director W. Mark Felt, was telling him at the time.

Hornaday even favorably cites the notorious fact-twisting director Oliver Stone to support her notion of distorting facts in the interest of  presenting a "larger truth."

You don't have to support Stone's signature brand of revisionism to agree that overweening literalism can sometimes obscure a larger truth. If we can stipulate Nixon probably never stood in front of a portrait of John F. Kennedy and said, "When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are" -- as he does in "Nixon" -- that tableau still encapsulates volumes about what motivated, tortured and finally undermined a brilliant and complex man. 

Hornaday concludes her justification of political film fact twisting with some stunning reasoning straight out of "1984" that is painful to read:

As long as dramatists seek to make protagonists out of mere humans -- to reduce their tangled webs of contradictions, complexities and banalities to a set of single-minded motivations and fatal flaws -- audiences will need to approach these narratives with a blend of sophistication and skepticism. But maybe the best way to understand these films isn't as narrative at all, but an experience more akin to ritual. When religious pilgrims travel to the sacred sites of the Holy Land, for example, the locations they visit often aren't the literal places where a biblical figure was born or baptized. Instead, they're the sites that, through centuries of use and shared meaning, have become infused with a spiritual reality all their own.

Thus, the movies about Washington that get the right stuff right -- or get some stuff wrong but in the right way -- become their own form of consensus history. "Follow the money," then, assumes its own totemic truth. Ratified through repeated viewings in theaters, on Netflix and beyond, these films become a mutual exercise in creating a usable past. We watch them to be entertained, surely, and maybe educated. But we keep watching them in order to remember.

Wow! So the "truth" of a "usable past" can be "ratified" through repeated viewings in theaters? That is the Orwellian reasoning that makes Valerie Plame name leaker Richard Armitage a non-person. Armitage never existed because he doesn't appear in "Fair Game." 

P.J. Gladnick
P.J. Gladnick
P.J. Gladnick is a freelance writer and creator of the DUmmie FUnnies blog.