Friday, December 11, 2009

The motion picture — images brought to life and blown up to building-sized heights, screened in front of audiences that gasp and laugh and cry, creating an experience simultaneously intimate and communal — is arguably the most powerful cultural tool since the Gutenberg press began the march of literacy across Europe.

In many ways, moviegoing and television viewing have replaced reading as our pre-eminent shared cultural experiences. People don’t gather around the water cooler to talk about the latest hardcover releases. They discuss what’s playing in the cineplexes and what HBO dared show the night before.

It’s often said that nothing can trump a book brought to life by one’s imagination, but it’s not true. The incredibly vivid nature of seeing a story brought to life has no equal.

Think of the difference between the movie and book versions of “Black Hawk Down.” Mark Bowden’s book was tense and thrilling in its own right, but unless you’ve known combat firsthand, you’ll find it hard to experience viscerally the narrative’s recounting of what happened on that fateful day in Somalia.

Ridley Scott’s movie, on the other hand, is a gut-wrenching depiction of heroism and chaos, all explosions and bullets and action. It’s one thing to read a description of the fog of war; it’s another thing entirely to be thrown into the middle of the action. Film, simply put, provides the more powerful, more resonant experience. The medium, as Woodrow Wilson famously declared, is “history written in lightning.”

This is why it’s so important for filmmakers to wield their great power carefully and responsibly.

German filmmaker Michael Verhoeven recently appeared at the Washington Jewish Film Festival to discuss “the roles of film in the ongoing denial and revelation of historical facts by parts of the German society.” He was presenting his film “Human Failure,” about a recently uncovered cache of tax documents from the Third Reich that kept track of what happened to the property of Jews sent to concentration camps.

Those tax documents — and their grisly import — were lost for decades as the war and postwar generations of Germans were content to forget what had happened during the Third Reich.

“Many people are confronted now with these files” as a result of the film being shown on television and in German cinemas, Mr. Verhoeven said. “The screening time, this is the thing.” As a filmmaker with a history of bringing hidden truths to light, he understands that getting a picture in front of people is 90 percent of the battle.

Some will argue that the filmmaker’s first duty is to tell an entertaining story. In movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s legendary words: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

But the medium possesses a unique power to shape memories and influence debates both during a film’s initial release and for decades beyond as it matures into a historical artifact reflecting the temper of its times. It’s fair to expect at least a modicum of fealty to reality. Consider two films from the past 14 months: “Invictus” and “W.”

Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” is the real story of Nelson Mandela’s efforts to forge national unity in post-apartheid South Africa by rallying the country around the nation’s famed rugby team, the South African Springboks.

It’s a story of hope and redemption and also, just as important, a historical document — a striking portrait of a nation’s struggle to overcome decades of ruinous strife and the man who led it away from the abyss.

Oliver Stone’s “W.,” meanwhile, is a self-satisfied hit piece on a man whom the director clearly detests. President George W. Bush and his Cabinet are portrayed as feckless at best and negligent monsters at worst, with little honest discussion about the reasons the Iraq war came to pass.

As Scott Galupo’s reporting in these pages confirmed, Mr. Stone — happy to let his biases dominate the picture — didn’t bother to talk to the people at the heart of his story.

What’s most dismaying is that “W.” almost certainly will be looked upon for insights into the Bush 43 era, much as Mr. Stone’s “Wall Street” is often considered a touchstone for the 1980s.

It’s fair to ask whether this misrepresentation — along with others from Mr. Stone’s body of work, including his Hugo Chavez hagiography, “South of the Border” — has done serious damage to both our and future generations’ understanding of the American scene circa the turn of the century. Only time will tell.

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