Hollywood has long placed, and hedged, its bets on history, from D.W.Griffith’s notorious 1915 blockbuster The Birth of a Nation (about the rise of the KKK) to last year’s less controversial but still factually challenged Oscar-winner Argo (about a CIA rescue mission in Iran). If this year’s Best Picture crop is any indication, the postmodern proposition that the further society recedes from physical reality the more it becomes obsessed with reclaiming it, has been borne out in spades. Six of the nine Best Picture nominees from 2013 deal with actual historical incidents—in varying degrees of verisimilitude.
Filmmakers’ fallback defense against charges of truth tampering has been to allege fidelity to the “spirit,” not the mundane facts, of the past. Disclaimers such as “based on” or “inspired by” real events provide further protection. Subjective accounts used as source material offer additional leeway, as was taken by Best Picture nominees The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave, and Philomena. Farcical treatments might even trumpet their historical distortions, as with another nominee, American Hustle, proclaiming, “Some of this actually happened.” The question remains, however, as to when poetic license devolves into licentiousness.
The Wolf of Wall Street is this year’s poster child for historical foul play, not so much for factual inaccuracy as for gleefully indulging in the criminal and hedonistic excesses it purports to indict. The Best Picture nominee that strays more egregiously from the truth, yet has managed to sail through critics’ lie detector tests, is the otherwise well-meaning and well-made Dallas Buyers Club.
The film’s sins are ones of omission and commission. Left completely off the hook in an expose of alleged medical, pharmaceutical, and governmental malfeasance, in regard to the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic, is the main culprit—the Reagan administration. Philomena offers an instructive corrective here, in its brief but painful reminder of Pres. Reagan’s unconscionable resistance to confronting—initially even to mentioning—the AIDS crisis. The only explicit allusion to Reagan in Dallas Buyers Club likely goes unnoticed by most viewers, and even if spotted, is ambiguous at best. Toward the end of the film, barely visible in the background of the offices of the film’s hero, AIDS activist Ron Woodruff, hangs an out-of-focus but still recognizable poster of Ronald Reagan. While it’s possible to “read” the poster as signifying that Reagan was “behind” America’s abject failure to deal forthrightly with AIDS, a likelier conclusion—counterintuitive for those familiar with the president’s inaction and misleading for those who are not—is that Reagan was somehow admired by those he had most maligned.
Far more troubling, as it is displayed for all to see, is the second of two printed titles that pop up after the film’s final shot. The first informs us that Woodruff died of AIDS in 1992, seven years after doctors gave him 30 days to live. The second states that the drug AZT, given in reduced dosages, helped extend the lives of many of those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. The information is treated as a throwaway, especially after two hours of gripping melodrama, and tends to be tucked away as a nagging but inconsequential tidbit. Trouble is, when seriously considered, the information radically recasts a main point of the film!
AZT had served as one of the film’s prime bugaboos. David vs. Goliath hero Woodruff (played to audience-endearing perfection by Matthew McConaughey) had demonized the drug and campaigned vigorously against its use, based on a sympathetic, anti-establishment doctor’s claim that AZT was poison, and on Woodruff’s own partial recovery after replacing AZT with less toxic alternatives. Heterosexual Woodruff’s rise from redneck hustler to entrepreneurial crusader on behalf of mainly gay AIDS sufferers further ennobles him both as film character and historical figure. Meanwhile, Big Pharma, which peddled AZT, and the FDA, which approved it, are presented as Evil incarnate, out to hoodwink the public for profit and rein in Robin Hood Woodruff at all cost. Yet AZT, we learn in the end (as an afterthought), actually did a lot of people a lot of good—indeed, far more people and at least as much good as did superhero Woodruff. Even at higher doses AZT, the film glosses over, proved comparatively effective, and no less than the World Health Organization includes the drug on its Model List of Essential Medicines.
This is not to grant full immunity to the drug companies and government agencies, and certainly not to a homophobic president whose press secretary, when asked why his boss wasn’t doing more to combat AIDS, said, “I don’t have it, do you?” It is to remove the stigma of a devil’s brew from AZT, and to call out filmmakers who, in their zeal to reach a broad audience with their saga of small fry vs. Big Brother, fell into the Hollywood trap of bending truth to the breaking point.
Vincent Brook teaches at USC and Cal-State LA. His most recent books are Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.