Valerie Plame lied for a living. As a CIA agent, it was in her job description. She'd pretend to be anyone, and say nearly anything, to get—paradoxically—to the truth.
"How do you do it?" a woman asked her. "Lie to someone to their face?"
"You have to know why you're lying," Valerie replied, "and never forget the truth."
But Valerie Plame—at least the Valerie Plame who said these words—is herself a lie. Played in the film Fair Game by Naomi Watts, this Plame is a fictional representation of real-life ex-spy Valerie Plame—based on Plame's own biography but still an amalgamation by countless creators: Plame, Watts, screenplay writers Jez and John-Henry Buttersworth, director Doug Liman and perhaps dozens of others, all eager to add their own input to this "true to life" story. Perhaps the Plame we see in Fair Game is relatively representative of the real agent—perhaps not. We moviegoers can't know for sure.
Of course, we moviegoers know this already, even if it's only on some vague, subconscious level. Any dramatization of real life, by its very nature, can't be absolutely 100% true in form and function. Fair Game, though based on a true story, is a work of fiction. We get it.
But given how persuasive movies can be, we sometimes forget that we get it.
We like to think of truth as something concrete. We want to be able to point to truth like we can a tree and say, "Hey, look, there's truth!" Obvious. Concrete. Unmistakable.
But the truth is touchy. It's messy. And in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department, it can seem like it's full of inconsistencies. Only God can sort all that out, divining the absolute truth behind every situation and motivation. We mortals can only find a slippery approximation of truth through lots of fact-finding and moments of insight.
Storytelling is, at its best, an attempt to scratch our way toward some of life's deepest truths. Moviemakers want you to feel something deep inside you—a sense of awe or love or fear or disgust—that you know in your being rings true. But to reach this truth, moviemakers—without exception—lie. They tell outlandish stories or create fictional characters and, even in the midst of "true stories," they stretch and mold the facts to craft a more compelling product designed to feel true rather than be true.
"When someone goes to a movie that begins with the words, 'The following is a true story,'" Aaron Sorkin, screenplay writer for the film The Social Network, told the Chicago Tribune, "[I would recommend] that they look at that movie the way that they'd look at a painting and not a photograph."
Shortly after watching the film Secretariat (about the famous thoroughbred who in 1972 won the Triple Crown) I heard a radio interview with the real-life Penny Tweedy, who owned the horse. She was doing publicity for the film, and she said it brilliantly captured the spirit, stress and excitement of horse racing. To her, the movie felt true. But when asked whether she gently stroked Secretariat's muzzle as she's shown doing onscreen, Tweedy said (and I'm paraphrasing here), "No. He would've bitten my fingers off."
I understand why director Randall Wallace opted to make Secretariat a bit more approachable. It fit the mood of the movie—the film's inspirational message, the metaphorical "truth" Wallace wanted to convey—even as he stretched the literal truth a bit. And, really, this kind of truth-stretching probably doesn't much matter. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, do you really care whether or not Secretariat was a nipper?
But sometimes it does matter.
In The Social Network, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is presented as a socially inept loner, driven by class envy and rejection to craft the world's most popular social networking site. Never mind that most folks who knew Zuckerberg back in the early Stone Age days of 2003 say they found him reasonably charming. Never mind that Aaron Sorkin admitted that a lot of what happens in the film is "arguable." Never mind that Zuckerberg has shrugged the whole thing off as a work of utter fiction. "I mean, the real story is actually probably pretty boring, right?" Zuckerberg told Diane Sawyer. "I mean, we just sat at our computers for six years and coded."
That's not stopping lots of the folks who've seen the film to now think Zuckerberg's a big ol' jerk, though.
The Proof Is in the Padding
Last year, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that students who watched historical movies tend to believe the movie's version of events over their own textbooks. Even if the students knew—or at least had read about—what really happened, they still took the Hollywood version as fact about 50% of the time.
"What we found is that there's something really special about watching a film that lets people retain information from that film, even when they had read a contradictory account in the textbook," psychologist Andrew Butler told MSNBC. In other words, films are fantastic teachers—even if what they're teaching is flat-out wrong.
Fact: In 1991, Oliver Stone released his controversial film JFK, which posited the idea that President John F. Kennedy was not killed by a lone gunman, but was instead the victim of a vast conspiracy. Fact: Today, anywhere from 55% to 75% of Americans believe there was a conspiracy behind the assassination. Stone has admitted that he made some things up to get at, what he considers, a larger truth. And while there's no definitive evidence Stone's film contributed significantly to this national skepticism (according to ABC News, conspiracy suspicions of the JFK assassination topped out in 1983, eight years before the movie), ABC did find that 20% of Americans, after seeing the film, said they thought a conspiracy was "more likely" than they had thought before.
I Can(not) Tell a Lie
Some, of course, strongly suggest that much of what shows up in history books is built on the same sorts of licenses filmmakers take. "History is a myth that men agree to believe," Napoleon reportedly said.
And he has a point. History is filled with our own biases and cultural influences: It's told by the victors, the old cliché goes, and we resort to storytelling to get at our truth. And movies—perhaps the most powerful form of storytelling ever invented—cannot help but influence how we look at the past.
Consider how we view war.
World War II is thought of by many—if not most—as the last "moral" war, fought heroically by folks upon whom we've bestowed the honorary title of "Greatest Generation." There are strong historical reasons for this: The Axis powers, helmed by Adolph Hitler's Germany, appeared to pose a true global threat to much of what we hold dear. But it hasn't hurt that the war's heroic ethos has been preserved in everything from American propaganda films of the 1940s to the harrowing Saving Private Ryan.
The Vietnam War, on the other hand, is seen as a horrific tragedy fought by occasionally brave but deeply flawed soldiers. Heroism rarely finds a place in our films about this war that so many consider to be a failure. It's not raw news footage or historical texts that form the backbone of how many of us think about it, it's Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.
Intellectually we may understand that, to the soldiers on the ground, these two wars didn't look very different. Many who fought in Vietnam showed incredible heroism. And I'd suspect that at least a few American soldiers in World War II committed acts of unspeakable horror. Yet the popular narratives—shaped, in part, by the movies we watch—endure.
Over the last several years, we've reviewed several films that deal, in one way or another, with the Iraq War—from Oliver Stone's W. and Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs to this year's The Green Zone and Fair Game. Filmmakers have said, quite clearly, that the war was a mistake. That it was—and is—a conflict forced upon us by an inept or corrupt administration.
These films—even though few people saw them in theaters—will live on for decades on DVDs and hard drives, speaking to people long after George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and other major players have faded from sight. Will they influence how future generations see our generation? Will they influence us?
How can they not?
Truth, Lies and Videotape
"My view is, if you get your history from movies, you get what you deserve," Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, told MSNBC. "You go to movies not to learn about history but to be entertained, frightened, thrilled. That's all great. But there's no reason that an episode of history has to be done with a certain degree of accuracy, because that's not the objective of a movie."
Peter Morgan, author of the play and film Frost/Nixon, told The Washington Post, "There are facts and then there are interpretations of the facts. As soon as people interpret the facts, it becomes someone else's fiction."
Which means that as long as we have movies—or, more broadly, stories—we'll be treated to others' view of the truth. And that's often a subjective "truth" indeed.
But it doesn't mean we should accept their truth as the truth—even if we happen to agree with them. When we watch movies, we must examine them with a critical eye, as if each one was a not entirely reliable narrator. Because the truth is, they're not entirely reliable.
None of us are.