Sam, a listener from PA, asks about Zero Dark Thirty as “history.”
BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today, we’re talking about movies, movies about history to be specific. But what exactly qualifies as history when making a movie? Sam, a listener in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania left us that question on our website. So we invited her on to talk about it. Welcome to the show, Sam.
SAM: Hi there.
PETER: Would you mind sharing your question again?
SAM: OK, well, I’ve been thinking about Zero Dark Thirty lately. I saw it, and I was reading commentary about it. And a lot of people asked, would this movie have been better– or should it have been made five to 10 years in the future when it feels less like news and more like history?
Which got me thinking, well, why isn’t it history now? Where’s the cutoff? And are movies actually better at depicting things as they get further from those actual events and eras?
ED: Well, that’s such a great question. I think it points to several different things that history is. One thing that history is is evidence. It’s a way of incorporating lots of pieces of reportage, memoir, primary documents, whatever into a sort of tapestry. That’s one thing that history is.
The other thing that history is is perspective, in that we’re able to see things in multiple angles the greater distance we get on it. And that’s kind of in the spirit that you’re asking. Wouldn’t it be better if we had more perspective?
PETER: Well, two things are going on here, I think. To some extent a film is an artifact of its time. And it immerses us in a particular moment. And the filmmaker is also trying to immerse us in a particular moment.
And I think these two different perspectives get confused and conflated. That is, I think 50, 30, 40 years from now, you’ll look at Zero Dark Thirty and say, well, I can see why that was made then and what questions were being posed. And what seemed so compelling at that time, with the nature of torture and interrogation, well, we got a different perspective. It looks differently.
And I think, Ed, you would agree that history is trying to negotiate between too much information and too much interpretation. But you’ve got to somehow simplify and reduce enough so that it’s manageable. And I think we live in our present moment in a world of, by definition, too much information.
ED: Well, the only reason, really, Zero Dark Thirty is imaginable is that it’s already a story with a limited number of characters. And what Zero Dark Thirty does is compress the number of characters even more. It compresses time even more.
And so what you’re finding, I think, is that it is as close to a journalistic account. I mean, I don’t think of it as history. I really think of it as a journalistic account. I don’t know, have we gotten anywhere toward addressing the substance of your question, Sam?
SAM: Yeah, I like that you called it journalistic. Because to me it really was trying to depict something very specific that happened, even if it is kind of recent.
ED: Sam, it’s interesting too to think about the other movie that Kathryn Bigelow made, the director, Hurt Locker, which is not a true story but based upon events that we’re unfortunately watching on the news every day of the people who are dismantling the bombs along the roads on our battlefields. Did you think that that seemed less problematic, because it did not claim to represent a true event.
SAM: I guess so, that it was made to feel a little bit more contemporary. But I still think that 20 years from now, kids could be watching either movie in history class.
BRIAN: Yeah, and Sam, I’ve just got to say a word about journalism. In fact, there is what was called the “new journalism,” which emerged in the late ’60s and 1970s, Tom Wolfe and those kinds of journalists. And the idea there was to evoke a set of feelings from one’s journalism, not simply to say who, what, where, when. And so I think that new journalism merges really quite well with the kind of films in relatively real time that we’ve been talking about today. Evoking a feeling and perhaps not getting every fact right, whether it claims to be a real story or not.
PETER: Well, Sam, thank you for shedding light on this dark subject.
BRIAN: Thank you, Sam.
SAM: Thanks, guys.
ED: Thank you, bye bye.