Based on a True Story: The Ethos of the “Docudrama”
“The following motion picture is based on first-hand accounts of actual events,” the opening screen of Zero Dark Thirty reads.
For docudramas such as Zero Dark Thirty and I, Tonya, “based” is the operative word upon which truth can be stretched thin. Since the lines between film and reality often blur, alternative “realities” can have consequences on how certain events are perceived and remembered.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty follows the process of locating and killing the head of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. When it was released in December 2012, reviews ranged from praise to down right condemnation. Critics, citing the film’s prolific use of torture sequences, argue that by implying that the CIA gained information on Bin Laden’s location by using torture, the film thereby promotes torture as an unpleasant-but-necessary strategy in the War on Terror.
Even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain, expressed their apprehension of the depiction of torture in the film in a statement released on December 19, 2012, shortly after the movie was released. “We are fans of many of your movies, and we understand the special role movies play in our lives, but the fundamental problem is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe the events it portrays are facts,” the statements reads, continuing, “The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.”
Zero Dark Thirty represents a very specific type of historical film: one that is based on a true story, yet takes often-drastic dramatic liberties in portraying real events. These types of films, often referred to as “docudramas,” (the portmanteau of “documentary” and “drama,”) are extremely popular in Hollywood, with many nominated for Academy Awards this season (including Dunkirk, The Post, and Darkest Hour). But such films run into trouble when they clash with reality.
The United States does not officially use torture to gain information from prisoners (although “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “short-term transitory facilities” act as loopholes to this provision). Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain made it clear that they will refuse to employ torture: “The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing and cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.”
David Clennon, an American actor and activist, was extremely outspoken against the use of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. He actively spoke out against the film during the Academy Awards season of 2013, urging fellow members of the Screen Actors Guild not to vote for it in the upcoming round of awards.
“I felt that the movie condoned torture and it implied that torture was effective because it showed the connection between the information that they forced out of the prisoner, and how that information led to the discovery of Osama Bin Laden’s courier, and the courier then led them to Bin Laden,” he told The Politic. For Clennon, the film made torture seem both morally acceptable and useful in counterterror efforts.
In addition to “proving” that torture gains useful results, he believes that viewers sympathize with the film’s admirable protagonist, “Maya,” as she directs acts of torture, leading them to believe that torture is acceptable.
“I think movies make it acceptable when they show you central characters, identifiable human beings, admirable human beings doing something that is controversial,” Clennon explained. “[Maya’s] glamorous, she’s beautiful, and she seems to be very earnest and sincere and patriotic,” Clennon said, “so when you see someone like her engaging in torture and directing acts of torture I think that as an audience we are primed to say, ‘It’s okay, she’s the hero of this film.”
Other critics see these torture scenes as unpleasant, though honest in their depiction of the reality of war. Although torture was not used to extract information regarding the location of Bin Laden, it has historically been used by the American military in other contexts that must not be forgotten. “The fact that it exposes that this is what we do as military men, that it’s disturbing, and ‘is this what you have to do in order to get the facts out?’ Well, if the movie strikes in people watching it a discussion, on a certain level it’s doing its job,” Yale screenwriting professor, Marc Lapadula, told The Politic.
Films, if done correctly, should critically engage viewers with the intent to spark conversations upon viewing controversial scenes. Lapadula continued, “If the movie’s done right and it presents some kind of problem where the senselessness of this violent act really was just beautifully, authentically presented, and yes, in order to do so it may have had to be pretty graphic, maybe that’s the way it had to be done in order to get that point across.”
Although violence can have an essential role in the critical engagement of viewers, films do often cross the line into the territory of glorifying violence. But while Lapadula believes that over-glorification reflects badly on the filmmakers, violence is still essential to the meaning of the film, as, he said, “there is violence in the world, and [the directors] are making statements about this culture where we are.”
For an event as emotionally and politically charged as the killing of Bin Laden, not to mention shrouded in high levels of secrecy, it’s extremely tempting for the viewer to want to believe what is being shown on the screen. Few details about the assassination had been released, as the CIA operates in secrecy, so fact checking was highly limited. The promise that the film was “based on first hand accounts of actual events” also lent it an ethos that it may or may not deserve.
Although the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty never explicitly claim to tell the truth, they do imply that events portrayed in the movie are facts. “There is no way to really get at the truth fully. Truth is sort of what you make of it, and, again, these directors are interested in creating compelling scenes,” Professor Lapadula said. Sometimes, the “truth” doesn’t matter in telling a compelling story, sometimes it’s impossible even to reach. The “true story,” especially in an event as long-lasting and intricate as the search for Bin Laden, would have been nearly impossible to form, as it is the compilation of thousands of people’s perspectives. For the screenwriter of these types of historical docudramas, the point, Lapadula says, is not to get the complete and utter truth, if that even exists, but to “just try to get the essence of what the truth was, or what you think it was.”
The ‘essence of truth,” is sometimes mislabelled as the truth. The film, I, Tonya, a more recent example of a docudrama, was released on December 8, 2017 and follows the rise and fall from grace of Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding. “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” a screen says at the beginning of the film, and wildly contradictory it is. Culminating in “The Incident,” the brutal bashing of competitor Nancy Kerrigan’s knee only a few weeks prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics by Harding’s husband and his co-conspirator, the film explores contradictions that can erupt when searching for everyone’s own personal “truth.”
I, Tonya, however is not the first film that has been made about the infamous Tonya Harding. In 1986, filmmaker and Yale professor, Sandra Luckow, made a 52-minute documentary, Sharp Edges, about the then 15-year-old Harding as her senior film thesis. Harding and Luckow grew up together and skated under the same coach. Created eight years before the Kerrigan incident, when Harding was still a rising star in the figure skating world, Sharp Edges explored Harding’s skating in relation to her rough family life, and included numerous interviews with Harding, her mother, and her coach.
While Sharp Edges acted as an important source for much of the imagery and character references in I, Tonya, it also shows the Hardings as more than just characters, but as real people. The characters in I, Tonya, are highly exaggerated versions of the real people that they are based on, hyperbolized for the point of drama. “What you lose is you lose the nuances, you lose the intricacies [when you dramatize],” Luckow told The Politic.
To Luckow, I, Tonya is more historical fiction than anything. “I love historical fiction, because I’m very clear as to what it is,” said Luckow, “it tells you this is someone’s imaginations of what they thought happened.” And while its categorization as “historical fiction” is not inherently a problem for Luckow, she is worried about how the general public views the film. Viewers don’t personally know the true story and are unable to differentiate a true reality from one that is stretched. “What I’m worried about is that people ingest [docudramas] as reality regardless. The viewers’ suspension of disbelief is not a suspension of disbelief, it is an acquisition of belief, and that can be very, very wrong.”
For filmmakers, Luckow believes that purpose needs to be the driving force behind these types of film. “The thing that’s really important to keep in mind is what are we trying to accomplish as filmmakers with a docudrama? Are we trying to make people believe that this is what happened? Or are we trying to give people psychological possibilities as to why it happened? And I think that that is what fiction can do, but I think the filmmaker has a huge responsibility in terms of making that [apparent].”
While a filmmaker’s responsibility is not necessarily a perfect adherence to some conception of “truth,” films do not exist in a cultural bubble. Stretching the truth in docudrama films that otherwise appear to be realistic can lead to the creation of a false, hyperbolized narrative of what actually happened. And in a society where “fake news” reigns supreme, the truth is becoming more important than ever.
“Most of the time when you are making a film about a historical person it reflects much more about the time in which it is being made than it does about the period it’s trying to illuminate,” said Luckow, and I, Tonya, acts as the perfect film for this “fake news era”, by showing the inconsistency of personal “truth” and how what one says is not always what actually happened.