Saturday, March 1, 2014

'American Hustle’=Hollywood History

“Some of the following actually happened.” That preface to American Hustle might be the most truthful statement to come out of Hollywood in awhile. It has the singular virtue, unlike so many other film industry products for a mass audience over the years, of not pretending to be more than it is.

Among the many contenders for Oscars this season, American Hustle was the one I was most eager to see. It wasn’t only that David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Silver Lining Playbook) has become one of my favorite contemporary directors, or that he had assembled as fine an ensemble cast as will likely be seen in any movie this year.

No, my eagerness derived from how much I related to the general era and particular events depicted in the film:

1) The mid-to-late ‘70s, you see, were the period when I came of age, as someone with an abiding interest in current events and an affinity for devouring what has become, sadly, an endangered species: the daily newspaper. 
      2) I’m a near-lifetime resident of New Jersey, the state with the lion’s share of politicians ensnared by the subject of the film, the Abscam scandal. Considering the prominent Garden State figures (U.S. Senator Harrison Williams, longtime Representative Frank Thompson, Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti)
      involved in Abscam, the film could just as easily be called JERSEY HUSTLE. The '70s clothes and hairdos are practically characters in their own right! The events are somewhat fictionalized (many changed names, so the filmmakers won't get sued, I guess), but it is wildly funny. It amazed me a few weeks ago to hear David Letterman tell guest Rachel Maddow that the Chris Christie George Washington Bridge Brouhaha reminded him of Chicago politics. For all his ironic sophistication and decades of exposure to the tristate area, it was painfully obvious that the talk-show host knew little if anything about the indigenous rich, loamy history of Garden State political corruption. Let me roll off a few names besides the Abscam figures (you can look up their misdeeds on the Internet, if you dare): former mayors Frank “I am the Law” Hague, Hugh Addonizzio, Kenneth Gibson, Sharpe James, John V. Kenny and Peter Cammarano; former senator Robert Torricelli; former senate candidate Nelson Gross; former governors Jim McGreevey, Donald DiFrancesco, and Jon Corzine (disgraced, admittedly, for his reckless post-gubernatorial actions on Wall Street rather than his decisions in Trenton); and the real-estate developers who unsuccessfully tried to bribe Fort Lee Mayor Burt Ross in the 1970s. And I didn't even mention the councilman in my own city, Englewood, whose aspirations for higher office collapsed in the late 1970s after it was revealed he had funded a massage parlor! 
3    3) As longtime readers of this blog know, I am eternally fascinated by how Hollywood treats—or, even in the best of cases, mistreats—history. (See, for instance, my posts on Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia.)  And make no mistake about it: Abscam, exploding into the national consciousness in 1980, has settled into the muck of history for today’s high-school freshmen, as much as (unfortunately) Pearl Harbor had done for my high-school freshman class of 1974-75.  Inevitably, Tinseltown has tried to have it both ways: assuming the cloak of serious art while excusing their (often avoidable) factual errors and distortions on the questionable grounds of “entertainment.” I wanted to see where American Hustle fell on this often-ambiguous continuum.  

Hollywood’s treatment of history, often laughable, takes on serious dimensions at awards time. The film industry, which loves to trumpet its big-hearted progressivism in such ceremonies, has not been above engaging in old-fashioned political skullduggery in drumming up support for particular films—or, rather, undercutting the competition. This leads to the unedifying spectacle of filmmakers arguing from April to December that they shouldn’t be held to historical standards since Shakespeare never was, while promoting from January to March the notion that everyone else should be held to those same standards.

George Clooney, undoubtedly a fine actor, is more problematic as a filmmaker. His argument below on the place of history in film, from a Hollywood Reporter “screenwriter roundtable” last fall, is broadly reflective of his industry’s attitude toward the past—and all the more worrisome for that:

“This [filmmakers’ responsibility to facts] is a new thing, by the way. This is all, like, bloggers -- if that existed when Lawrence of Arabia came out, believe me, Lawrence's own autobiography would not hold water. Patton wouldn't. You can go down the list of movies -- Gandhi -- these movies are entertainment. And that's what we have to get back to. A movie like 12 Years a Slave, somebody will go looking for something that doesn't jibe and they'll try to disenfranchise the whole film because of it. Because there's this weird competition thing that's going on now that didn't exist 10 years ago. That happened with us on Argo. It's bullshit because it's got nothing to do with the idea that these are movies. These are not documentaries. You're responsible for basic facts. But who the hell knows what Patton said to his guys in the tent?”

What got Clooney’s goat in this instance was, as he noted, the campaign against Argo, a film he produced last year. But that’s hardly the only case, over the years, when the Hollywood version of dirty tricks—i.e., a whispering campaign about a film’s lack of historical fidelity--has been employed against an Oscar contender.

A Beautiful Mind, for instance, was lambasted in some quarters for leaving out a rather important fact about the relationship between tormented genius John Nash  and long-suffering wife Alicia (i.e., their divorce and remarriage), while The King’s Speech was criticized for compressing the professional relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist from more than a decade to a few years in the late 1930s. Neither film ended up suffering when it came time to hand out the Best Picture Oscar. But one that did—and deservedly so—was JFK, for its manifold crimes against the historical record. (For an exhaustive summary of that, see Edward Jay Epstein's 1993 takedown in The Atlantic of crazed director Oliver Stone for having "organized a flight from reality.")
But Clooney’s comments on Patton are worth exploring in a bit more depth, both because the explanation is so patently self-serving and because that epic illustrates the promise and perils of even one of the better cases of history on film. 

While nobody in Patton’s headquarters was carrying around a tape recorder, enough is known from letters, diaries, oral histories, memoirs, Army memoranda, and biographies making use of these materials that Patton’s decision-making process and outcomes can be figured out with a large degree of certainty--so we have a pretty fair idea of "what Patton said to his guys in the tent."

In an essay on the George C. Scott 1970 biopic in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, the late critic Paul Fussell—himself a skeptical member of the general’s fabled army—takes the film to task for many omissions about Patton’s private conduct (e.g., the general’s incestuous affair with his niece), but still acknowledges that it “depicts his public behavior…with remarkable fidelity.”

One clever bit of editing, for instance, expands understanding of a complex sequence of events. The sequence, lasting no more than 30 seconds, features two vastly different commanders—Britain’s Bernard Montgomery and Germany’s Alfred Jodl—reading a telegram saying that Patton has captured Palermo. Each, whether English ally-rival or respectful German foe, is so caught off-guard that he can only exclaim, “Damn!” 

Did either commander respond with precisely that word? Highly unlikely. But the movie does capture the dread that the Germans came to feel for a commander constantly seizing the initiative from them, as well as the jostling for honors between those two Allied egomaniacs, Montgomery and Patton. (The American’s opinion of the Englishman was what you might expect: “I can outfight that little fart Monty anytime.”)

How Hollywood bends history to its purposes is all-important. If you need a rule to judge whether or not a film enhances understanding of history, remember this: the movie must not do violence to events or people depicted. It is not terribly important, for instance, that the voice of the real-life Patton could sound like a flute, quite unlike the famously gravelly George C. Scott, nor that a bespectacled, de-glammed Clooney still looked nothing like Edward R. Murrow’s producer Fred Friendly in Goodbye…And Good Luck. (The latter was, as Morley Safer noted, “a big man--big hands, big nose, big beefy face.”) 

It is far more of a problem when a film has a real person say or do something that someone else did, as in the case of the 1936 film The Gorgeous Hussy, in which Andrew Jackson (played by Lionel Barrymore) delivers a ringing address actually given by a fierce opponent, Daniel Webster. It’s also more of a problem when Clooney presents Murrow’s clash with Senator Joseph McCarthy as a simple-minded parable of journalism speaking truth to power, as Jack Shafer noted several years ago in a two-part essay for Slate.

Which brings me back to American Hustle. At least it has the decency to change the names of most of the principal characters. It has to, since it alters so much about the major players in Abscam:

*Amy Adams’ sexy con woman Sydney Prosser, for instance, diverges pretty significantly from real-life counterpart Evelyn Knight. Knight didn’t impersonate an Englishwoman; she was English. While she helped her boyfriend (Irving Rosenfeld onscreen, Mel Weinberg in real life) with his scams, she was not engaged in a love triangle with him and the FBI agent assigned to the case.
*Jennifer Lawrence is considerably younger than the woman she played, the wife of the con man at the heart of Abscam, Rosenfeld/Weinberg. Also, the real Marie Weinberg was found dead a couple of years after the scam, an apparent suicide.
*Jeremy Renner’s Carmine Polito was a rather cleaned-up version of the actual mayor of Camden, Angelo Errichetti. While Polito is depicted as the most honorable person in this group, Errichetti was an undisputed boss of South Jersey.

(For more along these lines, see Evan Hughes' Slate piece, "How Much of 'American Hustle' Actually Happened?")

It is unfortunate that Hollywood still has such problems in depicting history. Both historians and filmmakers, after all, share a common purpose: telling stories. I would bet that a number of academic historians share a love of movies just as pronounced, and perhaps more so, than the rest of the population. (Historian Arthur Schlesinger, for instance, even moonlighted as a film reviewer for some publications.) Whether they like it or not, filmmakers have a responsibility to fact, as the wide audience to which they appeal are unlikely to watch a documentary, visit a historic site, read an article or--God forbid!--read a book on the subject. As Ripon College President Zach P. Messitte noted in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece last month: 

"It is imperative that Hollywood's best pictures continue to get these stories right, because they lay the groundwork for the next generation's understanding of the world and help inform a basic narrative of our politics and policies for years to come."

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