This is a tricky one. Some would call it, rightly so, revisionist history – a term that has been given a bad rap. Yes, real characters are interpretations and are sometimes combined into a single character for the sake of efficiency. Dialog must be invented – except for the odd quotable lines, and events most certainly won’t appear exactly the way they occurred. Unless you were present when the crime occurred or the raid went down, you cannot possibly know who said what or in what order things happened. We accept all of that, knowing that what we are seeing is a reenactment, not a documentary.
Non-fiction dramatizations serve an important function in society’s visual and oral history. Like it or not, they become part of the record with supporters and detractors constantly going at each other. The events portrayed are major stories that either captured our attention when they occurred or, in some cases, should have and the filmmaker is making certain there is a record. It’s a risky bridge from fact-based event to fictional portrayal because success is in the eye of the beholder and point-of-view critical. Also, there can be victims involved – so how soon is too soon? What effect does the dredging-up of past events have on family and friends, or former admirers, if recently discovered or previously hidden negative information is included? Sometimes entire countries can feel embarrassed, but if the filmmaker is correct in his/her research and presents the event in a thoughtful manner while maintaining reasonable artistic license, the results are riveting.
All that said, there isn’t a more exciting genre as it incorporates action (mostly), suspense (even though we usually know how it all comes out), biography, history in most cases, and often politics. This happened. Here’s why and by whom. What do we learn from it, if anything? How does this change our perception of the past or impact our thinking and direction in the future?
It was extremely difficult to winnow down the list to just five entries.
In Cold Blood Richard Brooks (1967)
When Truman Capote wrote his exhaustively researched account of the murder of a Kansas family and the subsequent incarceration and eventual execution of their two murderers, he laid the firm foundation for a literary genre few had dabbled in – the nonfiction novel. Richard Brooks’ starkly impressionistic film of that novel, in turn, showed that stories ripped from the headlines could have both dramatic and artistic power of their own. Quincy Jones’ dissonant score and, especially, Conrad Hall’s exquisite B&W cinematography complemented the brave performances by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as Perry and Dick, the killers, from their entrance into the Clutter house to their walk to the gallows. One of several milestones from that magical year in filmmaking, 1967.
Zero Dark Thirty Kathryn Bigelow (2012)
“Polarizing” doesn’t begin to describe the kerfuffle caused by Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal, when their fictionalized version of the capture of Osama bin Laden also portrayed the means by which his pursuers attempted to get valuable information from detainees suspected of having links to the Sept 11 attacks or bin Laden himself. Neo-liberal critics, especially, accused her of glorifying torture as a means of extracting important data successfully. They severely knotted their knickers over the portrayal of blacksite interrogations (“Americans don’t do that”) or the ambiguous ending where the chief protagonist suffers a moral dilemma. Of course, those critics completely forgot the aspects of an honest point-of-view and, by the way, came to learn that, yes, in fact, they did indeed “do that”. It’s a powerful and thoughtful film that requires some intellectual maturity and not just a “correct” political stance to fully appreciate.
The Battle of Algiers Gillo Pontecorvo (1966)
France may have been so pissed-off at this Italian/Algerian film that they banned it from domestic theatres for five years, but Pontecorvo’s detailed and hyper realistic portrait of the brutal fight against colonialism is in my all-time top ten. Everything about this film is perfect, from the performances of the many non-actors in the cast to the use of controlled objectivity used in depicting the ugly dirtiness of the transition from colony to independence. Decolonization was universally mishandled by every European power, without exception, and that’s a hard swallow for most former colonizers. The newspaper ink had barely dried on the Algerian struggle that played out very publically in the 1960s. Pontecorvo’s docudrama style, his indigenous-based score (assisted by none other than Ennio Morricone), and his script based on Franco Solinas’ story of politics vs. humanity set the bar extremely high for non-fiction, controversially-charged filmmaking. I doubt it can be topped.
Z Costa-Gavras (1969)
Ironically, just a couple of years after The Battle of Algiers, France and Algeria came together to produce a based-on-fact political potboiler. This one was based on the novel by Vassilis Vassililos and was aimed, dead on, at the the military junta in Greece. It meticulously details events leading up to the coup d’état at an ever-increasing pace, egged on by one of the best scores compiled for a film. Mikis Theodorakis, the composer of scores for Zorba the Greek and Serpico, had been persecuted, banned, imprisoned and ultimately exiled by the junta colonels. Supposedly he was under house arrest when he gave Costa-Gavras existing songs for the film, and it is one of the most effective uses of music in film – the pulsating beats drive the action as we are led frantically to the jaw-dropping epilogue. And please remember – the filmmaker was not dealing with history in this case, but a living and breathing (at the time) dictatorship. Ah, I miss Costa-Gavras and his considerable moxie.
United 93 Paul Greengrass (2006)
Many, including myself, had trepidations that someone was making a film about the third plane involved in the 9/11 trauma, the one that didn’t make it to the target likely because of passenger intervention. Made a mere five years after the event, we had all had our fill of the attack and the last thing we needed was another tacky Airport movie dressed –up with B-movie stars fighting the good fight. Paul Greengrass instead gave us a gem of suspense and inspiration. A few faces in the cast are recognizable, but for the most part, not tabloid fodder. His script, based on the report by the 9/11 Commission, is tight and intelligent, including text from cell phone calls made by passengers as they realized what was happening – and likely to happen – if they didn’t take action. Greengrass is a master of realism and overseeing the editing so that he gets a very specific effect, and in this film it’s excruciatingly effective, even though we know what happens. The tension begins as passengers (and terrorists) board and, without a single moment of pandering or phoniness in between, doesn’t stop until those last desperate minutes over Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Best film of 2006, in my opinion, and a fitting tribute that hits exactly the right notes.
It’s a lofty goal for a filmmaker to tackle a slice of reality and be entertaining, enlightening, truthful and moving without sacrificing one’s project to sentimentality in an industry that thrives on crowd-pleasing. These are but five, all classics of their eras.