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Walking a fine line: To what level of accuracy should historical dramas aspire?




Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the 1984 AMLF film
Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the 1984 AMLF film "Amadeus."

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How harmful is it to get your history fix through films like “Apollo 13,” “Ben-Hur,” or, heaven forbid, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”?

Journalists, historians and movie fans alike have strong feelings regarding this topic, but Peggy Noonan’s recent article for the Wall Street Journal put a timely twist on the age-old historical accuracy argument – “It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.” Considering #FakeNews and skepticism regarding the media are commonplace, Noonan’s firm standards are certainly justified.

Yet many would argue that creative liberties are not quite as damaging as some may think, even in truth-muddled times such as these. In a piece directly responding to Noonan’s, Chris Scalia brings up the point that viewers of historical dramas know that what they are watching is a Hollywood-colored version of the event, and that to assume otherwise is a condescension.

So what do you think? Should writers and directors take more cautious approaches when portraying real-life events? Or does prudence suck all the fun out of the film-watching experience?

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Guests:

Amy Nicholson, film critic for KPCC and host of The Canon podcast; she tweets @TheAmyNicholson

Justin Chang, film critic for KPCC and the Los Angeles Times; he tweets @JustinCChang

Charles Solomon, film critic for KPCC, Animation Scoop and Animation Magazine