We’ve made a great movie. It’s called January 2021 and it shows how Donald Trump really was cheated out of the White House and Joe Biden really did tamper with the Georgia ballot boxes. In one amazing scene you see it was Mike Pence who encouraged the march on the Capitol to discredit Trump. The pope then tells Trump he won. We got the guys from The Crown to make it and it’s really moving.
Don’t believe it? Come on. It’s based on real events. Only bits are fictionalised to add some colour. Besides, since the movie came out, half of Americans think the events it depicts really happened. And we’ve made millions. Yippee.
Deliberately telling lies about the living or the deceased – whether they died recently or centuries ago – is simply wrong. It is worse than wrong: it is cruel and an offence to history and potentially to democracy. Those defending the practice argue that The Crown, Napoleon and Oppenheimer are good clean fun, true to life, based on real events, hugely popular and, anyway, are OK because the film-makers have artistic licence.
Napoleon clearly contains some nonsense designed by its director, Ridley Scott, to depict the emperor as a sort of Adolf Hitler. No one but Hitler is Hitler. But Napoleon is long dead and his life has been minutely recorded and assessed. As for the biopic of J Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb”, is the story it tells true? To believe so was vital to enjoying the film, but no one bothered to tell us if it was.
Spotting falsehoods in The Crown has become a national sport. Royal experts Hugo Vickers and Sally Bedell Smith have pointed out many of them; all are gratuitous and pointless. The made-up stories about Prince Philip, the Kennedys, Macmillan, the Queen, Prince Charles and what Diana said about her father seem casually derogatory. Had the films told the actual truth about this odd family it would have been just as dramatic. If you are not intending to tell the truth, why go to such expense to make the actors and sets so “accurate”? The effect is that the audience is often deceived into assuming the narrative is accurate too.
When art is so short of inspiration that it has to steal from history, it should at least respect history’s sole essence, which is truth. Distant history – as of Richard III, whose sins were reassessed once more in last Saturday’s Channel 4 documentary The Princes in the Tower: the New Evidence – can look after itself. I imagine even the royal family can survive these distortions. That is not the point.
This is dangerous territory. Much can be learned from journalists, who are like historians in that both occupations require a commitment to accuracy. Both are reporters on the past and present, and expected to search for the truth. To lie is serious. If errors are made, efforts must be made to correct them. No journalist is proud of being wrong, or boasts “artistic licence”. A film that portrays and dramatises historical events should be no different.
These are sick times for anyone wanting to keep the truth at the heart of public debate. Were Trump to be elected next year, it would be in large part because of the falsities of Fox News, and the lies that spread on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Falsifying events inflames emotions, reinforces hostilities and fuels grievances. At such a time, there is no place for “art” that arrogantly claims the right to ignore the truth.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist