We often write of the urgent need for more truth in politics. A hope for 2018 is more truth in art and entertainment, too.
The past week I watched the Netflix series “The Crown” and Steven Spielberg’s movie “The Post.” Each is enjoyable, yet fails in the same significant way.
There’s dramatic license, which is necessary or nothing’s fun, and historical truth, which is necessary or nothing’s understood. Ideally in any work they more or less coexist, however imperfectly. But in “The Crown” and “The Post” the balance is far off. A cheap historical mindlessness marks much of the first, and there’s a lie at the heart of the second.
I couldn’t help like “The Crown”: it was so beautiful to me. The acting, the stillness, all the money and thought that went into making the rooms look right, the period clothing, right down to the cuff links—in these matters the creators are deeply faithful to reality. In its treatment of history, however, there’s a deep, clueless carelessness.
Example: The treatment of future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is churlish and unknowing. He was not a sallow, furtive weasel of a man, which is how he is portrayed; he was a politician whose humanity, courage and wit even his adversaries acknowledged. He did not deviously scheme, during the Suez crisis, to unseat Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who did not throw a pen at him and call him a liar in a cabinet meeting.
As prime minister his weekly meetings with the queen were not testy, marked by condescension on his side and strained patience on hers. He respected and admired her; she became his confidante. In his diaries he called her “a great support because she is the one person you can talk to.” He would not have taunted her with the glamour and intelligence of her supposed rival, Jackie Kennedy. He would not have taunted her at all.
As for what is said of his private life, he realized early in his marriage that his wife, Dorothy, had fallen “irrevocably in love” (in the words of biographer Alistair Horne), with Robert Boothby, a brilliant member of Parliament who was a bit unstable in the way of bright English politicians. Their relationship continued almost 40 years.
Everyone knew of it. It was the great wound of Macmillan’s life. He considered divorce, but stayed. “I had everything from her, owed everything to her,” he explained in a late-in-life interview. “I told her I’d never let her go.”
He was not a man who, as “The Crown” has it, would drive her to her assignations like a pimp.
More absurd is the series’ treatment of President and Mrs. Kennedy. JFK was not, as “The Crown” asserts, enraged with his wife for dazzling Paris on their first state trip to Europe. He was thrilled at her success; it elevated him on the world stage. Suddenly he saw her as what she was, a political asset to be deployed. She transfixed Charles de Gaulle, that stern and starchy old man who was always mad at America, often with good reason. Biographer Richard Reeves quotes JFK to his wife: “ ‘Well,’ he told her, ‘I’m dazzled.’ ”
There is nothing—literally nothing—to support the assertion in “The Crown” that after the trip JFK, in a rage at being upstaged by his wife, drank, threw things and lunged at her. There is no historical evidence that he ever got rapey with his wife.
Also he didn’t smoke cigarettes.
All of this, and more, is so vulgar, dumb and careless. It is disrespectful not only of real human beings but of history itself.
A bonus anecdote, only because it’s real and I like it: When JFK met with Prime Minister Macmillan after Paris, he complained of some press coverage of Jackie. JFK was indignant. “How,” he asked, “would you respond if the newspapers called Lady Dorothy a drunk?” MacMillan replied: “I’d respond, ‘You should have seen her mother!’ ” Kennedy roared.
Now to “The Post.” When you can say you spent two enjoyable hours watching a movie, it’s a good movie. But it’s not an honest one.
Others have noted flaws. The movie is a celebration of the Washington Post for printing the top-secret Pentagon Papers, which revealed U.S. government lies about the Vietnam War. But it was the New York Times that showed the greater enterprise—it got the story first—and the greater valor, because its editors could not fully guess the legal repercussions and would presumably have to handle them on their own.
But what the heck: It’s still a good story, and the Post did show style.
What is bad is the lie at the movie’s heart. President Nixon is portrayed as the villain of the story. And that is the opposite of the truth.
Nixon did not start the Vietnam War, he ended it. His administration was not even mentioned in the Pentagon Papers, which were finished before he took office.
When that dark, sad man tried to halt publication of the document, he was protecting not his own reputation but in effect those of others. Those others were his political adversaries—Lyndon Johnson and Ben Bradlee’s friend JFK—who the papers revealed had misled the public. If Nixon had been merely self-interested, he would have faked umbrage and done nothing to stop their publication. Even cleverer, he could have decried the leaking of government secrets while declaring and bowing to the public’s right to know.
Instead, he did what he thought was the right thing—went to court to prevent the publication of secrets that might harm America’s diplomatic standing while it attempted to extricate itself from a war.
Being Nixon, of course, he had to crow, in a way that became public, that he was sticking it to those liberals in the press. His attempt to stop publication was wrong—the public did have a right to know. But he did what he thought was the responsible thing, and of course pays for it to this day.
Were the makers of “The Post” ignorant of all this? You might think so if it weren’t for the little coda they tag on to the end. Suddenly a movie about the Pentagon Papers is depicting the Watergate break-in, which would take place a year later. As if to say: OK, Nixon isn’t really the villain of our story, but he became a villain soon enough. It struck me not as a failed attempt at resolving a drama but an admission of a perpetrated injustice.
Why does all this matter? Because we are losing history. It is not the fault of Hollywood, as they used to call it, but Hollywood is a contributor to it.
When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging.
Those who make movies and television dramas should start caring about this.
It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.