Saturday, September 09, 2006

How to do and NOT do Docudrama

Come on, ABC. This should be simple. Fictionalize the non-essential elements all you want. Tell the truth about the key facts that matter. ABC appears to have done this in reverse as any search of "Path to 9/11" in Google will quickly make apparent.

But I wanted to draw a contrast. The film JFK got a sound trouncing from many critics for wildly fictionalizing a real event. But was that justified?

In fact, very little was fictionalized. Almost all the witness dialog came word for word from their Warren Commission testimony or the Garrison trial records. The opening scene depicts Rose Cheramie, who, in the hospital after her injuries, did in fact tell doctors and nurses that Kennedy was to be killed in Dallas. Lt. Fruge from New Orleans went to the hospital and interviewed a number of witnesses who confirmed that.

Where there was speculation of what might have happened, that was based on speculations Garrison himself, or others on his staff, made. The bugging really happened. Gordon Novel, hired by Garrison to provide security for his office, instead bugged the place and gave the tapes to the FBI, Walter Sheridan (who was paying him big bucks -"We doctored the tapes we gave to Sheridan," he told me), LBJ's office, and - as he revealed a couple of years ago - Allen Dulles. That's not surprising, as Gordon knew Dulles personally and had dinner with him, as he confirmed to me.

The scenes with the military overlaid by Donald Sutherland's narrative came primarily from the personal experiences and research of Fletcher Prouty and John Newman (who makes a small cameo in the film, as does Jim Garrison himself, as Earl Warren, ironically.)

There was nothing about the assassination story itself that was wholly invented for the film. Some of the characters were composites - such as the Kevin Bacon character, who was drawn from the testimony of three different people, two of which reported wild sex scenes such as those depicted in the film. (When Clay Shaw was arrested, among other torture accoutrements in his place was a hook with dried blood on it hanging over his bed. The film went easy on the guy.)

As a historical drama, it was amazing that Stone DIDN'T fall for the more crazy conspiracy theories that were pushed on him. And of course, screenwriter Zach Sklar knew the case intimately, having edited Jim Garrison's fine book "On the Trail of the Assassins", the primary narrative on which the movie was based.

The only thing invented for dramatic effect in the film was the subplot with Garrison's wife. She had been very supportive of his efforts before and during the trial, but the writer and the director chose to heighten the conflict with an alternate story line. Since the story wasn't about her or their marriage, that didn't offend me. If I had been her, I might have felt differently, of course. But that was not the point of the film, and it wasn't the thing people were going to take away from it. That wasn't a fact of national, political significance.

In contract, ABC's 9/11 "docudrama" contains key dramatic moments that were wholly invented solely to add tension and drama. But fictional events were attributed to real people of high national stature, whose actions effected an important historical and political event. You can't fictionalize events that are directly related to the history of such an important event and call it docudrama. At that point, ABC should have fictionalized the names and dates as well, and not pretended this was based on the "path to 9/11" to make the fictional points they were making.

The New York Times quoted the avowed conservative writer who penned the show describing how they simply made up a key scene and presented it as part of the history of the event!
[Sandy] Berger’s character is also seen abruptly hanging up during a conversation with a C.I.A. officer at a critical moment of a military operation. In an interview yesterday with KRLA-AM in Los Angeles, Cyrus Nowrasteh, the mini-series’ screenwriter and one of its producers, said that moment had been improvised.

“Sandy Berger did not slam down the phone,” Mr. Nowrasteh said. “That is not in the report. That was not scripted. But you know when you’re making a movie, a lot of things happen on set that are unscripted. Accidents occur, spontaneous reactions of actors performing a role take place. It’s the job of the filmmaker to say, ‘You know, maybe we can use that.’ ”

The moment discussed is the moment the CIA guys on the ground ask for permission to pick up Usama Bin Laden. Rather than answer, the fictional Sandy Berger slams the phone down.

The problem, is, that event never happened until it was improvised on the set! Even conservative author Richard Miniter, author of a book about how Bill Clinton lost the war on terror, says that event never happened:

If people wanted to be critical of the Clinton years there’s things they could have said, but the idea that someone had bin Laden in his sights in 1998 or any other time and Sandy Berger refused to pull the trigger, there’s zero factual basis for that. (Primary and secondary sources here.)

Last year, I had the great pleasure to hear the filmmakers of Hotel Rwanda discuss how, knowing they had history in their hands, they took special care to make sure they portrayed the history accurately. They moved events around in time when they were central to characters but not the timeline of the event itself. They took an incident that happened to someone else at the hotel and gave it to the main character's wife for dramatic effect. These are the kinds of manipulations one expects in a docudrama. It's a film. It's not the literal truth.

But to take an important historical figure, and insinuate they did something really awful when no such event transpired, is just outrageous.

It's not to late to protest this misrepresentation of history. Here's a way to help, from ThinkProgress:

Over 50,000 ThinkProgress readers have written ABC in the last 48 hours about “The Path to 9/11.” We’re going to keep the pressure on ABC, but we’re also broadening our focus today to the Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC.

Disney’s Chairman of the Board is former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME). Senator Mitchell has a long and distinguished career both inside and outside government and he knows how important it is to accurately represent historical events.

We need to remind him that 9/11 was a national tragedy, and that politicizing and flagrantly misrepresenting the facts about 9/11 is wrong.

Senator George J. Mitchell
T: (212) 335-4600
T: (212) 335-4500
F: (212) 335-4605

(Remember to be polite, and please copy us at so we can keep track your comments.)

ABC is feeling the pressure. Let’s keep it up.


Blogger Real History Lisa said...

I want to draw attention to the letter from noted historians Arthur Schlesinger, Eric Alterman, and many more at OpenLetterToABC which says in part:

"The claim by the show's producers, broadcaster, and defenders, that these falsehoods are permissible because the show is merely a dramatization, is disingenuous and dangerous given their assertions that the show is also based on authoritative historical evidence. Whatever ABC's motivations might be, broadcasting these falsehoods, connected to the most traumatic historical event of our times, would be a gross disservice to the public. A responsible broadcast network should have nothing to do with the falsification of history, except to expose it. We strongly urge you to halt the show's broadcast and prevent misinforming Americans about their history."

Read the full letter at the link above.

10:53 AM  

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