Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lincoln, Argo, Capote and the intricacies of weaving fact into fiction

We forgive sleight-of-hand in books as in cinema, but can we forgive Truman Capote for insisting In Cold Blood was factual?

Tuesday 19 February 2013  

A tour de force of literary imagination … Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

As Oscar night approaches, it's impossible to forget how deeply stories and storytelling are coded into the DNA of our stone-age consciousness. How naturally, moreover, we look to stories for moral guidance in the rough traffic of everyday life.
Perhaps that's why we have a profound, unconscious need to know what genre we're in. Is it a work of the imagination, or cold, hard fact? Never mind that some imaginations are deadly dull, or that some facts can be edge-of-the-seat thrilling, we like to know, as readers and as audiences, what the terms of trade are.

At the same time, as listeners or witnesses to heroic acts of storytelling, we can be quite forgiving. We know, for instance, that some passages of the historical record are steeped in obscurity, and also that fiction is make-believe. Perhaps all we require from a story, fact or fiction, is a fundamental authenticity, an honesty of intent and execution.

Thus, we come away from Spielberg's astonishing movie Lincoln marvelling at Daniel Day-Lewis's performance. We may have been fooled by the magic of cinema, but we still know that it was acting.
For the same reason, we forgive Spielberg's sleight-of-hand with his narrative. Lincoln is a deeply researched account of a pivotal moment in American history, but some things in it aren't "true". There were, for instance, no freed slaves in the gallery to watch the house of representatives vote on the 13th amendment to the constitution. But Lincoln is a film, not a history book (though it was partly inspired by a history book). That's its genre. Next.

With Argo, Lincoln's great Oscar rival, things get more slippery. The film is explicitly "based" on real events, fantastic and scarcely credible though these are. It uses documentary footage to heighten verisimilitude. It trades on memories of the 1979 hostage crisis. Many of its characters are, or were, real people, who are played for real. Like Lincoln, but more so, it's a fiction based on factual matters of life and death.

Amid these distorting mirrors, Argo understands its genre. It is outrageously entertaining, and that's what it's supposed to be: entertainment, of a very high order. Any directorial sleight-of-hand by Ben Affleck is forgiven by our acceptance of the genre and its needs.
Argo has a script derived from a now-forgotten news item, a report of a "Canadian" film crew scouting a movie in the Ayatollah's Iran. The "facts" of Lincoln occupy just four pages of Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Such fragments are often the stuff of great films – and great books, too.

McCrum's full piece

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