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Robert Bennett: Cut Hollywood some slack when it comes to 'political' bio-pics

With the Super Bowl behind us, the next big American TV event will be Oscar night, when Hollywood celebrates itself and its taste in movies. This year, four of the best picture nominees are “bio-pics” — films about real events involving real people whose real names are used. Two of them, "American Sniper" and "Selma," have stirred political controversy because of the way some of those real people are depicted.

Members of the military and many conservatives say that the soldier whose story is told in "American Sniper" was a hero who deserved the sympathetic treatment he got in the film. However, some liberals say his actions were emblematic of everything that is wrong with American foreign policy and call the film a disgrace. Former Democratic Chairman Howard Dean did that without having seen the film; he has since apologized to the troops but not to those of the film’s supporters whom he called “nutjobs.”

The controversy surrounding "Selma" is about its historical accuracy. Those who served in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration at the time of the Martin Luther King Jr. march from Selma to Birmingham in Alabama insist that the film inaccurately portrays Johnson’s role in this event. They say it casts him as a reluctant warrior who had to be brought along by King rather than the dedicated leader who pushed matters forward. The director of "Selma" shrugged that off by saying that she wasn’t making a documentary; she was making a movie to tell a story and had the right to do it however she wanted.

As these clashes go on in the blogosphere, we must remember that Hollywood has a definite group-think point of view with respect to political themes. If historical accuracy clashes with that point of view, historical accuracy will be sacrificed. There are plenty of examples: "JFK," the Oliver Stone picture whose take on the Kennedy assassination bordered on science fiction; or "Frost/Nixon," in which the gutsy British journalist was portrayed as jousting with a cornered Richard Nixon until finally achieving a stunning confession that plunges Nixon into obscurity for the rest of his life. Then there’s "West Wing," the TV series about the White House that bore scant resemblance to the real thing. I didn’t watch often, but when I did, I saw all Republicans portrayed as idiots, none of whom spoke or acted like any Republican I know.

Seeking to understand how deep this group-think goes, I once asked some of Hollywood’s most successful producers, “If someone brought you a well-written script telling a compelling story in which the protagonist was a conservative, would you make the film?” Most waffled — “Well, it would depend” — but the more honest one said, “No.” When a follow-up questioner asked if they even knew any conservatives, there was more waffling — “I’m sure I’ve met some at some time or other” — while the honest one said, “No, and proud of it.”

Given the fact that they were produced in such a milieu, "American Sniper" and "Selma" should be given credit for doing a much more respectable job in handling the political issues surrounding them than most Hollywood ventures.

I identify more with the "Selma" discussion because I was in Washington while President Johnson was working on behalf of civil rights and can understand why his former staffers are upset that the movie appears to downplay his efforts. But I’m willing to cut both pictures a little slack. Moviegoers’ memories are mercifully short, and historians do not use movie scripts as primary sources — however much the Hollywood producers wish they would. This too shall pass.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.