Monday, August 18, 2008

History and the Movies: Let the Great Illusion Drown


No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read. - David McCullough.

I suppose that applies to viewing as well and I agree. But what McCullough is talking about is taking history and making it engaging without changing or distorting it. That's something the movies have never been good at. As a result, I don't go to the movies for history lessons and as a history buff I don't expect them. I'll get my history from McCullough and others and get my dramatizations from the movies. But sometimes, a movie can distort history to a point where it becomes problematic. That point is usually reached when the movie itself becomes popular enough that the majority of people start believing that the history in the movie is the real history.

I've written several reviews on these pages about narrative dramas and documentaries concerning the Manhattan Project of World War II. It's a subject I have had a deep fascination with for decades. I've read everything there is to read on the subject and seen most, but not all, of the relevant films (I've still not seen The Beginning or the End made in 1946 with Hume Cronyn as J. Robert Oppenheimer but I'd love to, if only it were available). The movie Fat Man and Little Boy is a classic example of a film so loose with the historical record that anyone familiar with the record (like me for instance) starts to wonder, "Was it an actual goal of this film to ignore every possible fact?" Hilariously, the director, Roland Joffe, famously stated that his was the most historically accurate account of the Manhattan Project ever made. "Why," he said, "we even have 'Dance of the Fairies' playing on the radio before the Trinity Test, just like it actually happened." Wow. It's true, they do have that (it occurred due to a reception problem with the P.A. system that picked up a local radio station) and lots of other tiny and utterly meaningless little "details" that add up to nothing. The big stuff, who Oppie and General Leslie Groves were, how they acted, what they said and did, is pure fantasy.

But who cares? Like I said, I don't get my history from the movies and since the movie was a flop I don't have to worry about people actually believing that Robert Oppenheimer squeezed an orange and came up with the idea of implosion (hahahahaha - that scene took the movie straight into the comedy genre for me. And by the way, implosion as an alternate way to achieve a runaway chain reaction was already being researched before they even set up camp at Los Alamos). And if I do want history from a movie I'll watch Day One yet again. You want history? That movie's got history. I'd have to say from all that I've read, including the excellent account by Peter Wyden upon which it was based, that a good 98 percent of what is in that movie is on the historical record. It's probably the most accurate historical film I've ever seen.

Then sometimes a movie mixes up its facts and time lines but still gets the right idea across. In fact, I'd say this is the most common of all the possibilities of the historical film. If you know or have read anything about General George Patton, you know that the movie Patton mixed up dates, deleted characters and generally played fairly loose with the facts about the General. And yet, they still did a good job of accurately portraying him. Filling the role with an astonishingly dynamic presence, George C. Scott gets to the heart of Patton so even if the movie isn't quite accurate, it is, if you know what I mean.

Or take The Right Stuff. Much of the information about the actual flight missions were authentic to a fault. If you've read Thomas Wolfe's account or seen any number of documentaries on the Mercury program, you know that Chuck Yeager did indeed break his ribs the night before his historic test flight and had to use a sawed off broom to close the door to his plane so that he could become the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Just like it is in the movie. But you also know that the Mutt and Jeff characters of Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum as well as the hilariously overplayed moments of frustration with LBJ (Donald Moffet) are probably more or less fictionalized. And so what? Again, they get the feel right. They capture the proper spirit, displaying the astronauts' courage and honor as well as their fears, egos, tantrums and generally childish behavior. The Right Stuff gets it right, even if the facts aren't all there.

But now I'd like to get back to how I started this post. That is, the movie that distorts the history and becomes popular enough to sell it as the real deal.

This time of year as the baseball season is heading into its final stretch I often think of Ken Burns' documentary Baseball, which I have on DVD. It's a thorough accounting of the history of the game, if not a thorough accounting of every player (they left out Rogers Hornsby?). Whenever I watch the third installment, The Faith of Fifty Million People, which covers the Chicago White Sox World Series scandal where eight players threw the game for a few thousand bucks, I start thinking about the movie Field of Dreams.

Now I'm not here to critique Field of Dreams, I'm here to talk about it's story concerning Shoeless Joe Jackson. (however if you want to read an entertaining story about the movie and its title I recommend checking out this post from Sheila) If you don't know the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson and have only Field of Dreams as your guide (and many people do) you'll come away with quite a different picture of what happened during that ill-fated World Series in 1919.

First there's the casting which is, to borrow a term from the game, straight out of left field. You need to cast an actor as a down home country ball player born and raised in rural poverty in Greenville, South Carolina and you cast ... Ray Liotta!?!???! Liotta, without saying a word, screams urban, tough and streetwise. When he says that line about Ty Cobb not being invited because everyone thinks he's an asshole followed by that Liotta Jersey cackle I cringe every time. And it's not even because Jackson and Cobb were friends and respected each other, although that's obviously a problem with the line as well, but because again, Liotta just doesn't convince me he's a rural poor boy. Kind of like casting Woody Allen as the Terminator. No matter how hard he tried, Woody just wouldn't convince me.

But the real problem for me is the way Jackson is presented. Similar problems occur in Fat Man and Little Boy too, but like I said, that movie flopped. Field of Dreams was a smash. And to this day I've heard people make arguments about Shoeless Joe lifted straight from the conversations of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in the movie. That bothers me. Not because I hate Jackson (on the contrary, I find him a sad figure and sympathize with what he went through) but because I don't like it when the whole story, in favor of just part of it, is swept under the rug because of a person's personality or popularity. And that's the tactic of Field of Dreams with Jackson. We don't get the whole story, just enough to turn him into a victim, instead of a man in control of his own destiny.

Kinsella and Mann talk about Jackson as a sainted figure. He was just a dumb bumpkin who didn't know what he was doing. And besides, if he was in on the fix, how come he played so great during the series? How come his series stats were so amazing? Good questions but not quite thorough enough. His stats were fantastic - offensively. Guess what? So were the offensive stats of the other players on the team. So are Kinsella and Mann saying no one threw the Series? What Kinsella and Mann don't mention, but baseball history books do and these characters appear on the surface to know their baseball history, is that the defensive stats were less than stellar. Why? For me it's simple - ego.

Defensive stats are important to a player but not like those offensive ones. The offensive stats (home runs, rbi's, bases stolen, etc) are the glamour stats and, thrown World Series or not, no one on that team was about to screw with their glamour stats. But when it came time to catch an easy pop fly Jackson stumbled. When he picked up balls in play he took an extra step or two before throwing them to the proper base and when he threw them they didn't have the same power they normally had. To be sure, he made some amazing plays defensively during the series too, enough to keep his stats in line there as well. But he stumbled when he needed to, he slowed down when it counted. And that was the difference. All of this was noticed by sportswriters, fans and one Christy Mathewson during the series. The shadiness of what was going on was somewhat of an open secret. *(see below)

Christy Mathewson was one of the games greatest pitchers before an accidental inhalation of mustard gas during training exercises for combat in World War I ended his career. During the 1919 World Series he was asked by a sportswriter to watch the series with him and let him know what looked fishy. Mathewson noticed things immediately, and they were all on the defense. You know, the part nobody talks about in Field of Dreams.

In the end, none of this matters much. It's innocuous really. But that's how it takes hold. If someone distorts the facts about a world changing event in history there's an immediate outcry and the public takes notice. If someone distorts the facts about a baseball game, well...

Still it bothers me and I think it bothers me more in a dramatic sense than in a historic sense. Imagine if the movie had gone with the Jackson as a man in control of his own destiny. Imagine if Jackson was shown to have helped to throw the series and thus lose the opportunity to ever again play the game he loved. And as a result, it cut a wound so deep in his soul that he had to come back from the dead to heal it, to make amends. Now that's compelling. Innocent victim? Not so much.

And all of this leads me to this scene, this favorite moment from the Ken Burns documentary. It is the Grand Jury testimony of Joe Jackson, the testimony in which he confesses to what he did and explains how it all went down. The testimonial record was conveniently lost and not recovered until after the players had been acquitted in trial. Hmmm.... wonder how that happened. The moment from the documentary has the viewer listen to Jackson (voiced by Keith Carradine) tell the Prosecutor about his payoff. The Prosecutor asks him if his wife knew and if so, what was her reaction. When Jackson tells it the full tragedy of his character is on display. You can hear a wife, in just a few simple words, trying desperately to steer her husband in the right direction, and a husband not hearing any of it. And when Jackson repeats the words on the stand you can imagine the deep regret he has that it didn't end that day. He should have listened to the better angels of his nature, but he didn't. And at that moment his field of dreams died forever.



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*If you read the Wikipedia entry on Jackson you will inevitably find the section about his alleged innocence during the series. It is still an open question and I am not trying to outright condemn him in this piece. The Wikipedia entry however, unlike more thorough baseball history books, ignores the defensive stutters of Jackson throughout the Series as Jackson supporters often do. They also mention nefarious tactics by the Prosecutor and end with a statement by Lefty Williams that Jackson's name was only mentioned to give the plot more credibility. However, this does not tell the whole story either. What Williams meant by most accounts when he said Jackson's name was mentioned to give the plot credibility was that he knew Jackson had to be in on it because he was such a great player that if he wasn't in on it the fix might not work - They might not lose. Jackson was that good a player. Take all of this how you will, my main argument here is against the half-truths in Field of Dreams resulting in a less compelling presentation of Joe Jackson's motivations. My main points here are to the dramatic differences in the story if the full Joe Jackson history is used. If history proves Jackson to be completely innocent I will be extremely happy. In the end, Joe Jackson was kind man with immense talent who made one tragically big mistake.