Warning: History is about to be dethroned
Originally published on medium.com January 2021
George W. Bush leaned back in his chair and rested his feet on the Resolute desk. He looked across his cowboy boots to Dick Cheney seated across from him.
“Big Time," he said. "I was talking to Rummy, and I think I know how we justify invading Iraq. Everybody loves Colin Powell. We send him out to tell everyone Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Maybe get him up to the UN.”
“But we don’t have any solid proof they’ve got the WMD.”
Bush pointed across the desk at Cheney.
"That's where you come in."
This conversation never took place. But if I wanted to script a movie about the Iraq War, I could include it. Hollywood has created fake scenes and passed them off as history for decades. Mostly with impunity. But recently, the British government took exception and demanded someone take responsibility.
In November, the Netflix series The Crown, based on the 20th-century lives of the British royal family, entered its fourth season. The government gave them a pass on the fake history included in the first three, but this season’s depiction of Princess Diana, Prince Charles, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher struck a nerve. Have your way with Winston Churchill, the British Bulldog, but keep your hands off the Iron Lady. The government's culture secretary demanded Netflix warn viewers that even though the show connects with real events, it is a product of its creator’s imagination. Netflix refused and responded, “We have every confidence our members understand it’s a work of fiction that’s broadly based on historical events.”
I don’t share their confidence. At least not here in the United States where the wall between fact and fiction leaks like a closed Senate hearing. Where people accept alternative facts, and real news and fake news are first cousins.
Robert Lacey, a Cambridge educated, renowned British historian and writer, is The Crown’s historical consultant. In discussing the show's accuracy, Lacy has said, "There are two truths. There's historical truth, and there's the larger truth about the past," and admitted, "half of the show is historically accurate, and the other half is imaginatively accurate.” He also conceded that although there is a "strong kernel of truth" in the episodes, there’s invention in the characters’ dialogue and motivation. I'm not Cambridge educated, but I doubt Lacey’s professors instructed students to skirt historical truth by being imaginatively accurate and inventive in their research and writing.
I haven’t seen season four of The Crown to comment on its historical distortions. The jarring transition from Claire Foye as the queen in seasons one and two to Olivia Colman as her majesty in season 3 stopped me in my tracks. I am familiar though with Netflix’s broad-based approach to history. Most recently, through their drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7, about the defendants accused of inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Penned by Aaron Sorkin, this movie is a historical crime that warrants its own trial. There's no evidence pacifist defendant David Dellinger ever physically struck anyone in his life, let alone a United States Marshall. In the movie, Black Panther Fred Hampton's assassination sparks an emotionally charged speech from defendant Bobby Seal that leads to his being bound and gagged. In reality, Seal was fixed to his chair and muzzled in October 1969, while Hampton died in December. In talking about bringing true-life stories to the screen, Sorkin says, "My fidelity is to the story, not the truth."
Netflix honors the rating requirements of the Federal Communications Commission and the Motion Picture Association of America. Rated TV-MA, they alert viewers The Crown includes sex, nudity, language, and smoking. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is rated R, and Netflix warns of “language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use.” Although content producers aren’t required to comment on historical accuracy, Netflix could be a role model by being the first. Instead of just warning viewers they are about to hear profanity, they could alert them the history they are about to see is profane.
Netflix would make Hollywood history by taking the more significant step of committing to historical accuracy over imaginative accuracy. Being inventive with Sorkin’s statement, Netflix could declare, “The fidelity to history is the truth.”
Speaking on behalf of the audience and taking some liberty with the motivation and dialogue of one of Mr. Sorkin’s own characters, Colonel Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men, "We want the truth, and we can handle it."