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The Problem with Docu-Fiction

by on December 27, 2018 5:00 AM

 

This week the movie “Vice,” about former Vice President Dick Cheney, opened with a slew of Golden Globe nominations and critical acclaim. But as filmmakers continue to venture into a blurring of lines between entertainment and history, it may be time to create legal protections to ensure accountability.

“Vice” is just the latest installment in the growing trend of docu-fiction movies. The entertainment industry loves docu-fiction because true documentary films are difficult to make. They often require cooperation from the subject, with staid scenes of talking head interviews which do not provide a lot of exciting visuals. They are rarely moneymakers.

But society has expressed an interest in “true” stories and docu-fiction has become a profitable way to blend entertainment with the appetite that audiences have to consume real-life stories.

So what’s the big deal with some creative license?

Years ago, while recruiting at a high school, I stopped into a coach's history class where he was airing the movie “JFK.” Many students were taking director Oliver Stone’s conspiracy assertions as truth. A few years ago the film “Argo” told the story of a daring rescue attempt to get several Americans out of Iran after the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979. The truth in the story was amazing, but after taking my middle school kids to see it I had to explain that the final airplane chase scene never happened.

Docu-fiction, by attaching fictionalized dramatizations to real people and events, creates a factual equivalency that can be misused in ways to create a bias in the viewer. Some of the dramatizations border on, or are even outright, defamation of public figures.

While being unable to speak with authority on inaccuracies in films like “Vice” or “Chappaquiddick,” there is an example with which I am very familiar.

The movie “Paterno” debuted on HBO in April. Just a preliminary count found a few dozen serious inaccuracies in the film’s portrayal of events, some miscasting ill intent by creating events that never happened. The opening scene is based on an inaccurate story that appeared in a book by John U. Bacon. When Bacon wrote the book he never fact-checked his story with me (nor did he fact-check with people at USC or Notre Dame about stories at those schools). Another person included in that opening scene also disputed, in a sworn deposition, Bacon’s account. Regardless, the story made its way into the opening scene of the movie and was believed by people who saw it.

The example illustrated the way fictionalized stories take on a perception of authenticity in the hands of a skilled director, something that you may not notice until it hits close to home. It can be unnerving to see a person portraying you, saying things and acting in ways that you never did or would.

Dramatization is thin cover for people to excuse what they produce. On the movie “Paterno,” a reporter who covered the story was a consultant on the film, yet the film was not released bearing her name as the title. Her character also was involved in scenes and dialogue that never happened, false scenes used to cast aspersions on the character of others.

But if docu-fiction is going to be establishing perceptions of history, then the recourse for people portrayed to go after those who produce them should be strengthened. Families of dead people have no rights to defend the truth about their deceased relatives. People deemed "public figures" have to prove malice, which is nearly impossible in our court system.

Many of the laws governing slander, libel and defamation were written long before the social media and digital media age. Producers and directors should not be free to paint over the canvas of historical events to distort truth for entertainment purposes. The momentary and mostly ignored disclaimer at the start of these movies gives the filmmakers cover while in no way undoing what the audience is about to see.

Public figures have little to no recourse when their life stories are hijacked or skewed by a producer or director to make money or advance an agenda. Legal protections should be updated to reflect massive changes in technology and the delivery of news and entertainment in this country.

If not, then for the time being the stories of history and people can be freely shaped to fit the views of the producers, directors and studios with no regard for fairness or truth.

Freedom of speech is one thing, but the creation of false and dramatized history that impugns the character of another comes with a cost to society and to the people who are wronged. And few things are as dangerous as free rein to write “dramatized history” in the hands of someone driven by a profit motive or an agenda.


 

 



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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