Free State of Jones is only a week away and the New York Times ran a fascinating interview Wednesday with its director, Gary Ross. I was especially struck by Ross’s investment in establishing the film’s historical bona fides. He claims to have researched his subject extensively and consulted with multiple historians, many of whom appear in the article. He even took a pseudo-seminar with John Stauffer. Most remarkable of all is this website that essentially footnotes the film, explaining script choices and providing access to relevant primary documents and secondary citations. As a historian, I find all of this very commendable. As a critic, it makes me a little nervous.
To me, the key paragraph in the interview is this one:
“I stopped my life to read and study for two years before I even started writing a script,” Mr. Ross said during a recent interview in his office in Manhattan. “If people want to pick apart this history, they can. But they should know that this wasn’t the glib work of a screenwriter who was inventing things.”
I’ve defended poetic license here and elsewhere, and I think we could apply Ross’s last sentence to any well-crafted piece of historical fiction. Of course, there is such a thing as bad historical fiction, but poor accuracy is pretty low on my list of things that can make a story boring or unenjoyable (Gladiator, for instance, is a good movie but awful history). You have to first consider the artist’s goals and build your criticism from there. I particularly don’t have a lot of patience for complaints that a piece of historical fiction, especially a film, leaves too much out. This happened most prominently with Lincoln, as some historians complained that the film ignored how African Americans helped destroy slavery. While I certainly agree African Americans were at least equal partners in making emancipation a northern war aim, I also understand screenwriters have to make narrative choices and those choices usually refine their subject, rather than expand it. Lincoln is a prime example because its focus is purposefully narrow, concentrating solely on Abraham Lincoln’s involvement in pushing the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress (at least until its messy denouement). Outside context is limited for the sake of story and to better deliver the screenwriter and director’s central message. This is not an offense to history, but part of the task of adapting historical subjects to create coherent, informative, and entertaining narratives.
Ross is trying to avoid some of the criticism Lincoln received by, in the parlance of the classroom, “showing his work.” With earned confidence, his website tells us:
We hope this is helpful, maybe even fun. Some things need to be invented in a movie, but most things in Jones were not. I think it’s only right that you be able to tell which was which.
Again, this is all great (and the website really is great—I mean, really great), but here’s the thing: when artists worry too much about historical detail, their products tend to come out a little lifeless (think Gettysburg or The Conspirator). This is ironic because you’d think adhering more closely to what people actually did would produce more drama and emotional resonance, but this often isn’t the case. I obviously love history, but I want something fundamentally different from historical fiction than I do from a monograph. There’s plenty of overlap but, generally speaking, fiction is better at exploring broad themes while non-fiction thrives in the details. Furthermore, when fiction gets too preoccupied with accuracy, it often loses its dramatic heft and narratives flow—in other words, it’s often a little boring. This is especially true for films, which are limited to around 2 hours and thus need to be narrowly focused. Length doesn’t excuse inaccuracy and many films take poetic license too far (see: anything written by Randall Wallace), but others tend to take advantage of their limits to tell sharply focused stories that depict a specific aspect of a historical event, usually with a presentist subtext. Engaging with current historiography is a plus, but not strictly necessary. In movies, I’m usually happy enough with a well-produced and well-acted story that explores a wide-reaching historical truth without sweating the details.
That being said, it’s surely possible for a film to be artistically and historically excellent. Maybe Free State of Jones achieves this feat. Early word suggests it does. If so, this is great because the Jones story tells us important things about the Civil War Era and the South, and having more people exposed to that story can only be a good thing. What’s more, it would set a strong precedent that it’s possible for films to be entertaining, informative, and moving, while engaging deeply with the historical record and current literature. Maybe footnoted historical films are a viable and—dare I say—potentially popular sub-genre. Wouldn’t that be great? But striking a perfect balance between good history and good storytelling is extremely difficult. I hope Ross has what it takes. We’ll soon find out.