Ripped from the Headlines: Reality Cinema

First published in Dissent (Summer 2016)

Hollywood has always had a strong appetite for fact yet a curiously lax attitude in channeling it. The typical biopic, for example, focused on celebrated figures from Abraham Lincoln to Cole Porter, tended to be sloppy and selective, riddled with crowd-pleasing cliché, more about the myth than the man. After 1934 the Production Code, the industry’s self-censorship regime (first put into place under public pressure in 1930), put whole subjects off limits. Documentaries, going back to those of Robert Flaherty in the 1920s, also tended to manipulate details in ways more suited to fiction than to reportage. The studio look of so many movies of the golden age, right down to their reliance on rear projection and saturated Technicolor, highlighted an almost dreamlike artifice rather than literal veracity. Eventually, though, the restraints of the Code were surmounted and new technologies made location shooting the norm.

Even as special effects exploded, movies inexorably began to look more real even as their stories could remain far-fetched. Social problems once unmentionable now became fodder for both serious filmmaking and cheap exploitation. Civil rights issues gave rise to films as different as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), with an exceptional script by Tony Kushner and a sterling performance in the title role by Daniel Day-Lewis, and Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), buoyed by David Oyelowo’s uncanny impersonation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., recreating a legendary moment in contemporary history. But there was also an irresistible attraction to a galaxy of figures from the entertainment industry itself, often people with tormented private lives ranging from indelible Hollywood stars to cultish jazz icons. Both history and phenomenal celebrity provided pre-sold subjects that traded on characters the mass audience already partly knew.

A striking proportion of films featured in last year’s New York Film Festival dealt with the lives and foibles of real people, all of them from the very recent past, including the opening night film, The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’s 3-D recreation of Philippe Petit’s sensational walk on a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, Danny Boyle’s touted biopic Steve Jobs, with Michael Fassbender impersonating Apple’s late computer guru, and Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s partly fictionalized take on the troubled life of jazz great Miles Davis. The main slate also offered Steven Spielberg’s real-life drama, Bridge of Spies, dealing with the 1962 exchange of Soviet spy Rudolph Abel for the captured American U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers. It centered on the man who arranged the swap, a patient and canny lawyer named James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, whose plain-man persona served as a foil for the darkly inscrutable Mark Rylance, playing Abel. A more daring choice was an indie film by Michael Almereyda, Experimenter. Here a gifted young actor, Peter Skarsgaard, appeared as Stanley Milgram, a professor of social relations at Yale in 1961, who undertook a series of famously controversial studies of ordinary people’s “obedience to authority,” as shown in their willingness, under orders, to administer electric shocks to people posing as “learners” in laboratory trials.

Different as they were, these films represented a heavy dose of ‘reality’ at a festival better known for wilder flights of art and imagination. The festival, coming toward the end of the year, its program replete with ambitious works, typically serves as a prologue to the awards season, though its rarefied offerings rarely win Academy Awards. As it turned out, the Oscar competition for Best Picture centered on three films of exactly the same fact-oriented bent. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which proved the unexpected winner, zeroed in on the Boston Globe’s investigation of the priestly child-molesting scandal, long covered up or minimized by the Catholic Church. In a parallel ensemble work, The Big Short, based on a nonfiction best-seller by Michael Lewis, Adam McKay put together a step-by-step recreation of the financial collapse set off by the housing bubble, which nearly sank the U.S. economy when it burst in 2008. Finally, out of a different world and different century came The Revenant, the almost unbelievable, barely endurable story of Hugh Glass. As punishingly incarnated by Leonardo DiCaprio, he was a grizzly mountain man and fur trapper who, in 1823, survived a gruesome bear attack, crawling back to what passed for civilization in search of revenge on those who had left him behind to die. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and filmed by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant was at once a marvelous portrayal of the old west, especially the breathtaking natural world, and an ordeal almost as trying for the actors and audience as it must have been for the characters. Was this simply a case of realism run amuck? Was this the key to a new turn in American filmmaking?

Above all, as this year’s most acclaimed movies showed, the line between fiction and fact, between invention and documentation, grew blurry, at times disappeared entirely. In Experimenter Dr. Milgram has the strange experience of serving as a “consultant” for a (very bad) movie made of his life, with actors playing himself and his co-workers, as we in turn, in a dizzying regress, observe actors playing those actors. On the other hand, several of the lives dramatized in this year’s movies have also been the subject of straightforward documentaries or earlier fictional treatments, including Steve Jobs (Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, out just this year) and Philippe Petit (James Marsh’s widely seen Man on a Wire, 2008, some of it with an actor standing in for Petit in 1974). One of this year’s better biopics, Trumbo, with Bryan Cranston as the blacklisted screenwriter, was preceded in 2007 by a first-rate documentary inspired by the subject’s own piquant letters and personality. In his bracing book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), David Shields argued that the line between fiction and nonfiction has always been hard to pinpoint, especially because any form of storytelling, even memory itself, is highly selective, shaping material rather than just reporting it. “An awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined.” It turns out that the very words “fiction” and “nonfiction” do not exist in many languages, even in the categories that separate bookstore shelves.

In focusing so much on real people, this year’s high-profile films can be seen as a deliberately hybrid genre exploring of the no-man’s-land between fact and fiction. Though the emphasis in this round was rarely political, such a heightened attention to the real world can provide a refreshing new twist on the gritty social problem movie inherited from the 1930s and 1940s. The impetus for this kind of film can be traced to the audience’s suspicion of fabricated lives, its preference for a supposedly true story, like a brand name, even when they know it’s not to be trusted. But it’s also a response to the unexpected challenge from cable TV, which has carved out space for timely, topical stories too hot for Hollywood (or the networks) to handle. In the way it takes advantage of a freedom from censorship as well as the far wider scope of a multi-part series, it’s hard to imagine a feature film anything like Showtime’s Masters of Sex, which was based initially on a biography of the pioneer sex researchers Masters and Johnson but grew increasingly fictional with each new season. This year also brought an riveting two-part dramatization of the Madoff story, with a sensational performance by Richard Dreyfuss in the title role. It came with an on-screen warning that it was “inspired by true events” but “some characters, businesses, scenes, and chronologies have been invented, altered, or consolidated for dramatic purposes.”

Aside from the timeliness, the ready-made drama, and the huge impact of their subjects, the appeal of these movies comes from the offer of a more intimate look behind the screaming headlines and endlessly replayed news images. But thanks to the high-octane performance of an actor like Dreyfuss, we can’t help but sympathize with the bedeviled Madoff as his Ponzi scheme collapses, the law closes in, and his family disintegrates. We see the story from his point of view, itself a piece of fictional invention since no reporter has been privy to it. Madoff’s victims – apart from his own luckless family – aren’t personalized in the same way; they come off as greedy, foolish, or naively trusting, just as his chief accuser comes off as nerdy and obsessive.

In some basic way these movies have really been performance pieces, lit up either by individual actors like Dreyfuss, Hanks, or Rylance or by the impressive ensemble work on view in Spotlight or The Big Short. Such gifted impersonations suggest authenticity to an audience leery of fiction, eager for the inside story about real people. Movies have the power to flesh out abstractions even as they funnel them into crafted stories and fill in significant gaps in what we really know, using real events and personal stories to reshape our political understanding. Thanks to postmodernism we’ve come to distrust or dismiss claims of objectivity, skeptical about gaining access to what is real and true, if indeed there is such a thing. Instead we instinctively assume that all representations, including those we make to ourselves, are constructed, contingent, provisional. Yet, when such films are so well made, this knowledge does little to dilute their visceral impact.

It makes a difference whether the characters in question are current or familiar to us, like Madoff, or remote, like the mountain man Hugh Glass, who belongs more to folklore and oral legend than to history. The people in Experimenter, Spotlight, or The Big Short have lived real lives but what most of us know about them, if anything, is negligible. The prime subject of best of these movies is the issues they raise, not the personal character of those who raised them. The fundamental plot of each of these last three films is an investigation, scientific, journalistic, or financial. Milgram casts his inquiry in the light of Nazi atrocities perpetrated by ordinary people, yet he himself has stood accused of deceiving and manipulating his subjects. Peter Skarsgaard’s muted but steely performance is meant to show us that he’s no sadist but a dogged, resourceful scientific inquirer, not at all judgmental but genuinely surprised by what he finds about the willingness to follow orders and inflict pain. Like the protagonists of several of these movies, he often turns from the story to address the audience, a Brechtian device lifted directly from documentaries – a form of authentication, as if to say these events really happened, their meaning a subject for serious reflection. But the movie also has a tinge of the surreal, as with the elephant that sometimes follows Milgram through the corridors as he speaks to us directly, narrating some of his own story.

The social problem movies of the Depression, such as Wild Boys of the Road (1933) or The Grapes of Wrath (1940), not only boasted that they were “ripped from the headlines” but demanded identification with the victims, an empathy for the exploited and the forgotten. “You Have Seen their Faces,” proclaimed Margaret Bourke-White’s collection of photographs. Today this approach seems square and old-fashioned. In The Big Short we do meet one Florida family that will lose its home – the whole housing scene looks like a waste land – but even this has little of the pathos and solemnity of the Depression films. The director and co-screenwriter’s previous movies have mainly been broad comedies, especially the Anchorman films with Will Ferrell. In The Big Short Mckay turns the financial crisis into a riotous farce, an outrageous carnival of con men and suckers, edited in the quick-cutting, anything-goes style of music videos on MTV. Without turning didactic or preachy, at least till near the end, he manages to explain arcane financial instruments while exposing how fraudulent they were and how cynically they’ve been peddled to the greedy and the unwary. Our sympathy, such as it is, is reserved for the handful of men who gradually, incredulously, see through the con and bet daringly on the collapse of the American economy. In other movies about the financial crisis the players have seemed faceless, pallid, leaving the audience largely disengaged. Here they become sharply etched characters, each (under differently weird hair-pieces) incarnated by a different style of acting: Christian Bale’s Asperger’s-like detachment, Steve Carrell’s perpetually short fuse, the almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt’s Zen-like concentration, Ryan Gosling’s self-satisfied sarcasm, and the puppy-dog enthusiasm of two younger traders who apprentice themselves to Pitt.

There’s just such an orchestration of acting rhythms in the Globe’s investigating team in Spotlight, with a bravura, Brando-like performance by Mark Ruffalo and a master class in acting by veterans like Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James. Backing them up is an understated performance by Liev Schreiber as their editor, soft-spoken behind a mask-like beard and raised eyebrows, an outsider to Boston-area politics, who pushes them forward and backs them up. This is rounded off by great supporting work by Len Cariou as an insidiously charming Cardinal Law and Stanley Tucci as the exasperated advocate for some of the victims. No comedy here, only mounting indignation at the scope of the abuse and the insidious cover-up – an improbable attempt, set in motion by Schreiber, to hold the Church accountable as an institution, not simply a handful of bad apples. This institutional corruption is at the heart of both movies, against the grain of Hollywood’s usual, often sentimental focus on individual stories.

At first it seemed that real-life subjects simply provided a way of ransacking the past – or the news cycle – for tried-and-true stories and sure-fire personalities, some of them all too well known. But it soon became clear that this was new terrain, melding documentation and social consciousness with inherently dramatic pieces of fictional invention. The film festival also saw the showing of Michael Moore’s most shamelessly entertaining documentary, Where to Invade Next, a brightly utopian set of forays into nations that handle social welfare and education very differently from us. “Why can’t we do some of that,” he keeps asking. In early films like Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine Moore intrusively elbowed his way into the story. Here he pulls back, playing the wry, faux-naif narrator and tour guide, making complex issues seem disarmingly simple. The result is delightful, with nothing of the grim sobriety of old-style documentaries.

In the end many of these films fit into existing types – the Spielberg as a spy movie, reminiscent of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold; The Big Short as serious farce, revealing the absurd side of an awesome, catastrophic scam; Spotlight as a pedantically slow procedural investigation that gradually morphs into a thriller in the vein of All the President’s Men, powered by our contemporary nostalgia for the working press in its finest hours; Experimenter as a dramatized documentary with surreal touches, raising questions about cruelty, obedience, and moral agency that still haunt us. But together they represent facets of a new kind of mainstream movie, not biopic, not history or journalism, not original drama or strict documentary, but bringing together an arsenal of effects from these forms into a potent yet an unusually thoughtful blend.