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"Accuracy Is the Poor Man's Authenticity": (A Few) More Thoughts on the Expert Review

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 21, 2014 at 4:52PM

The responses to Sam Adams' attack on the Expert Review debate the tension between history and art.
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Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club"
Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club"

I won't lie: It fell good to get "Please Kill the Expert Review" off my chest. But it's also been great, thought-provoking fun to read the responses from people who felt like my jeremiad against "What X Gets Wrong About Y" articles risked throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

At RogerEbert.com, Noah Gittell zeroes in two particular cases: the movie "Cesar Chavez" and the TV show "House of Cards":

The film’s purpose is to inspire, and to do that, it implies that Chavez’s successes were untarnished by history. But it leaves out the union’s many subsequent failures and squeezes a complex public policy problem into a tidy narrative.

Another example, this one cited by Adams, is Politico's fact-checking of "House of Cards." The facts that it corrects are not inconsequential details; rather, they are vital to an understanding of our current dysfunction in Washington. The screenwriters depict a $25 million donation made to a shadow campaign against Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) by his enemies as an enormous amount of money. In actuality, $25 million is a lot but, as Politico notes, it's "hardly a game-changer." This mistake gives viewers a false impression of how much money is really involved in politics, and before you argue that "House of Cards" is not intended to be factual, consider how far the show goes to achieve versimilitude. 

At his blog, historian Andrew E. Larsen argues that accuracy matters, not just in terms of history but public perception:

historical train-wrecks of the magnitude of "300" aren't that common (although I have a decent supply of them for this blog). More seriously, Adams' argument fails to take into consideration the effect that movies and TV shows have on a viewer’s perception of the facts. Television and film are not just momentary distractions any more than a bottle of Coke is just a momentary distraction; both have lasting effects on the person who consumes them, often in ways the consumer isn't fully aware of. Movies and TV shows shape the viewer's notion of what the world around them is like and how they think history played out. I have a good friend who is an assistant district attorney, and she has mentioned a number of times how juries increasingly view a lack of DNA evidence as evidence that the government's case is weak largely because shows like "CSI" place such a heavy emphasis on DNA evidence as proof of guilt or innocent. In reality, DNA evidence is often unnecessary to prove someone’s guilt, and running DNA tests is expensive and time-consuming. In the American legal system, the standard of guilt is reasonable doubt, but shows like "CSI" are changing what reasonable doubt means to average citizens, which raises the government's burden of proof.

And for the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg asked me and others -- including at least one bonafide expert -- if we're "fact-checking pop culture to death." The most interesting part of the article for me is her discussion with Amy Kramer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, whose job is to walk TV and movie shows through the finer points of reproductive law.

"It's not helpful to anyone when Hollywood portrays, let’s say, an unplanned pregnancy as always leading to love, and marriage, and happily ever after. That’s the kind of stuff, certainly that does happen in real life, but the vast majority of these situations, that’s not the outcome," she said. "You can’t tell creative storytellers how to tell stories, and I would never pretend that I could. But even [when] pop culture, or these kinds of things, are not 100 percent precise in how they do these things, that doesn’t mean that they’re not helpful."

I won't try to have the last word, but I appreciate Rosenberg allowing me the opportunity to clarify and extend my remarks, particularly with regard to historical fiction. As I told her, I think it's tremendously important when, say, "Dallas Buyers Club" turns a bisexual protagonist into a homophobic straight man, less because of the distortion of Ron Woodruff's individual history than for what how it plays into Hollywood's insidious tendency to frame queer history through heterosexual eyes. At the same time, I don't think art, or even mere entertainment, has a responsibility to stick to the facts, especially in an otherwise manufactured story: The "CSI Effect" Larsen describes is a real, if complicated, phenomeon, but the reason shows like "CSI" misrepresent the nature of forensic work is because the real thing is incredibly boring to watch (unless, that is, you're a nerd like me, in which case you'll lap that stuff up). Perhaps it's true that the show places an addition burden on prosecutors and defense attorneys, but educating the jury has always been part of their job. There's nothing wrong with pointing out that "CSI" distorts the true nature of forensics; there's also nothing wrong with a fan of the show responding, "So?"

The key, for me, is not how a work of fiction departs from the truth -- assuming that is can be easily ascertained in the first place -- but why it does so, and what the effect of that departure is. As Matt Zoller Seitz points out in Rosenberg's article, Oliver Stone's "Nixon" compresses reality in order to turn the story of one president into a moral opera; Stone has absorbed the bare facts of history and turned them into something else, which is at least one definition of art. 


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