James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘JFK’

Movies and history: Is there any good history in cinema?

Posted by James McPherson on December 20, 2008

In responsed to my post of a few days ago in which I complained about the historical inaccuracy of “Frost/Nixon,” author David Schleicher (who also happens to be a regular reviewer of movies) asked if there have been any recent films that I considered to be historically accurate.

That’s a great question. Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer, because movies are the medium that I may know least about. I’m so out of touch with cinema that the last two films I saw in theaters were “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille.”

Schleicher also asked about my perspective on HBO’s recent John Adams miniseries. Even though “Freakonomics” author Stephen J. Dubner had a few problems with its history, in fact that miniseries and “The Wire” were two of the most recent reasons for me to wish I had more than expanded basic cable.

Dubner also points out that the miniseries strays from the facts offered in the David McCullough book on which it is based, offering an argument that gets to the heart of my original complaint about “Frost/Nixon”:

I’m not looking for embellishment when it’s not necessary. Sometimes it is necessary. …

When such dramatic license isn’t necessary, however, and it’s used anyway …  it makes me feel that the filmmakers are trying too hard to do something they shouldn’t be trying to do. It makes me feel that they are trying too hard to make the characters richer than they need be, that they are desperate to “get inside the mind of” the characters, as people like to say.

But what makes McCullough, in my opinion, one of our best living writers is that he doesn’t work that way at all. Instead, he accumulates stubborn fact after stubborn fact — an act of accretion that borders on alchemy — and presents such a robust portrait that there is no need for the sort of psychobabble noodgery that fills up lesser books.

I probably watch too much television, especially considering how much of my viewing is skewed toward news-oriented programming. (On the plus side, I generally avoid “reality TV.”) Most of the remainder of my media time is spent reading newspapera, magazines and blogs.

Still, the question about good history in films piqued my interest enough to do a bit more research, in which I came up with a number of commentaries about films with good or bad “history.” Among the films regularly rated as particularly “bad history” are “Gladiator,” “300,” “Titanic,” “The Insider,” “The Last Samarai,” “Braveheart,” “The Patriot,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Elizabeth,” “Dances with Wolves,” “JFK” and “The Alamo.”

I would add almost any film starring one of my childhood heroes, John Wayne–which gets to another point. “Citizen Kane” is considered one of the best films of all time, and is one of my favorites. Yet it, too, takes considerable historical liberties.

That film’s saving grace–other than the fact that it is a cinematic masterpiece–is that the film changes the name of the main character. Part of the reason people considered the portrayal so truthful is that William Randolph Hearst (the model for the fictional Kane) tried to have the movie stopped.

Some of the other films noted above I also liked, “Braveheart,” “Gladiator” and “Dances with Wolves.” Interestingly, though, I didn’t consider any of them to be particularly historical as I watched them.

As for historically accurate films, almost a decade ago author James Roquemore offered these as his top five: “A Man for All Seasons,” “Apollo 13” (like “Frost/Nixon,” a Ron Howard film and one I liked a lot), “Ulzana’s Raid,” “The Duelists” and “Conagher” (a 1991 film I can’t remember ever hearing of before today).

Other book-length takes on the topic have been offered by Robert Brent Toplin,  Robert RosenstoneMarcia LandyFrank Senello and  Mark C. Carnes. I must admit that I haven’t read any of those books, however–if I had that much time to spare, I’d be more likely to take in a movie or two.

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

“W” and “An American Carol”: losers left and right

Posted by James McPherson on October 11, 2008

Two politically oriented films have been released just before the election. One has an obvious liberal bias, the other an obvious conservative bias. Interestingly, these are entertainment films, not documentaries along the lines of “Farenheit 9/11” or the equally slanted ABC miniseries “The Path to 9/11“–which means their success will be determined as much by box office dollars as by political influence.

Oliver Stone, who has done some very good films (“Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Wall Street,” “World Trade Center“) and some bad history (“JFK” and “Nixon“), tells Maxim that his latest film, “W,” is being released this month not to influence the election but “because Bush is still around.” He also questions his potential influence: “I did three Vietnam movies, and what good did they do? People still lined up in support of the Iraq War. People don’t remember. It shows you the futility of what we do.”

The other film is largely an attack on Michael Moore, the creator of “Farenheit 9/11” and “Sicko.” The new film, “An American Carol,” is produced by another well-known filmmaker, David Zucker (“Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun,” from back in the day when we thought O.J. Simpson was funny). Zucker, who in 2004 produced anti-John Kerry ads, and who in an interview with the neoconservative Weekly Standard compares Barack Obama to “a really clever virus who adapts”–says he hopes his film will persuade people to vote against Obama.

That seems unlikely. In fact, neither film is doing particularly well, despite the unpopularity of President George W. Bush or the heavy promotion on Fox News for “An American Carol.”

Early reviews of “W” from Variety (an “unusual and inescapably interesting” movie that “feels like a rough draft of a film it might behoove him to remake in 10 or 15 years”) and Hollywood Reporter (“a bold but imperfect film about an imperfect man”) are obviously mixed. And it seems to me late-night TV hosts have skewered the president pretty thoroughly. Besides, watching the real Bush flounder is bad enough–and no longer particularly funny, considering the state of the nation thanks to the Iraq War and the economy.

Of course conservatives quickly and ludicrously complained that liberal bias and “ticket fraud” (?!) were keeping “An American Carol” from doing well, but judging by the preview, I suspect that the primary problem is the combination of unsubtle political commentary combined with even less subtle juvenile slapstick humor. It is notable that the filmmakers refused to release the film for critics, usually a sure sign that the filmmakers know they have a dud on their hands (though in this case they spun it as a defense against liberally biased critics).

It’s difficult to imagine whom “An American Carol” is trying to reach. After all, most of the college-age males that the preview seems to want to engage likely will turn to something equally goofy, but which also offers the prospect of nudity.

Young people look for Adam Sandler and David Spade, not Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper, and for Angelina Jolie rather than her father, Jon Voight. And even moviegoers who like Kevin Farley, the film’s star, want to laugh with their lovable losers, not at those losers, and they want to see their heroes win in the end. That doesn’t happen here. Instead–ironic spoiler alert–the end of the film apparently has the character intending to do a new, more accurate version of “JFK.”

Older audiences need a stronger reason to go watch a film than do older audiences, and I can’t see Farley being such a reason. The film is broadly obvious–and therefore uninspiring–in its intent, and apparently lazy in execution. And anyone who wants to see Bill O’Reilly acting stupid can do so five nights a week on television; there is little reason to pay 8 or 10 bucks to do so.

This won’t be an election turned by film fiction, or even by based-on-a-true-story depictions offered in movies (or in political ads, for that matter). The fact that soon perhaps no one will be able to afford to go the movies, anyway (though escapist entertainment films were popular during Depression), will play a much bigger role in the probably election of Barack Obama. By then you’ll probably be able to check out both of these films on video.

Posted in History, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »