"The truth," a character quips in Oscar Wilde's timeless comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest, "is rarely pure and never simple." That the speaker is a liar and the character spoken to has invented his own history only adds to the deliciousness of the irony. Both the situation and the epigram serve as apt metaphors for the depiction of history in film this year. And Wilde, who could have easily been a movie critic in today's world, would, I think, approve.
As "top 10" lists are being compiled and accolades are being awarded, a look at this year's more notable movies shows that real people and events dominated multiplex screens. It's no accident that historical epics often sweep film awards and half the performance Oscars won in the last five years alone have been for actors playing real people.
Just look at Helen Mirren. By the end of this awards season she'll probably be holding every statuette available for playing historical queens in film and TV. And both were named Elizabeth.
What's interesting this year is the approach filmmakers took toward viewing actual events.
Yes, there was history, but no Gandhi- or Last Emperor-type bio-epics. For better or for worse, filmmakers tried to see their historical subjects from the inside out and tried to capture the macrocosm through some sort of microcosm. Intentional or not, there also seemed to be a concerted effort to see the same subject from more than one side. It's as if everyone had finally caught up with Rashomon on DVD.
Clint Eastwood, American film's elder statesman, did a double take on Iwo Jima. The first, Flags of Our Fathers, views the decisive WWII battle with Saving Private Ryan-style intensity but at the same time explored America's need to create, have and sell its own national myth.
The other side of the coin, the still-to-be-seen Letters From Iwo Jima, reportedly sees the conflict from a decidedly Japanese point-of-view. Interestingly enough, as the national consciousness about our own involvement in war is shifting, the flag-waving Flags received a lukewarm response from both critics and audiences while Letters has already picked up Best Picture awards from the National Board of Review and the LA Film Critics.
Whether they were fact, fiction or both, many 2006 movies came down to giving us a version of people, places and things. Fur is a version of Diane Arbus and her obsessions; Apocalypto is a version of Mel Gibson and his. Both seem to have something to do with cultural sado-masochism. Dreamgirls is a version of the Supremes' rise; Bobby is a version of RFK's fall. Infamous is yet another version of Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood, itself a version of another real story. All are worth your time for telling a kind of truth, if not the truth.
Want politics? Borat pretends to be a version of American hypocrisy, but it's really just a version of Sacha Baron Cohen. Blood Diamond is a version of the civil war in 1999 Sierra Leone as well as why you should think twice about giving jewelry this Christmas. And An Inconvenient Truth is both a version of global warming and Al Gore that too many people are learning far too late.
Best of all "versions?" Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion is indeed a version of the beloved NPR program, but it's an elegiac, alternate reality about both the passing of a medium and, alas, the director himself.
Speaking of politic and double takes, 2006 was the year 9/11 finally made it to the screen. And though the producers of Oliver Stone's ham-fisted World Trade Center are pushing the "For Your Consideration" buttons hard, the New York Film Critics wisely awarded United 93 their top honor.
Whether or not Paul Greengrass' documentary-like take on the ill-fated airliner is the best film of the year — and I think it is — it will surely stand as the most courageously artistic and daringly inventive. United 93 creates a fictional approximation of cinéma vérité that feels genuine, as if hidden cameras were really on everyone involved that day.
United 93 also points up what 2006's best films did: present speculative histories. They're fictional accounts of real tragedies fueled by facts, intelligence and rare talent. They're slices of life in which the big picture is implied by telling, essentially, a short story.
No, Sofia Coppola wasn't at Versailles during the reign of Louis XVI, nor was Stephen Frears at the British royal family's Scottish retreat in Balmoral in 1997. Still, Marie Antoinette and The Queen do remarkable jobs of creating historical fictions that play like convincing fact.
It's hard to say which point critics belabored the most when Marie Antoinette opened this fall: the presence of a Punk soundtrack or the lack of politics and conventional plot. As Kirsten Dunst's Marie might say, "Well, duh!"
Coppola's teen queen is, forgive me, the ultimate virgin suicide, a girl lost in translation. A daughter of film royalty herself, Coppola puts us in Marie's many expensively adorned shoes, finding the human being in a historical figure often reduced to a single false quote. ("I'd never say that," Marie sighs when she reads the tabloids.) This is the most underappreciated film of 2006.
There's appreciation aplenty, though, for The Queen, and rightly so. Yes, Mirren deserves every award, but so does the rest of the cast. And so does writer Peter Morgan. Although he extensively researched this chamber-like work about the social, political and private fallout immediately following the death of Princess Diana, the fact is he wasn't in the chambers themselves to bear witness.
That said, The Queen is a majestic bit of speculation. The focus is as precise as the royal family's diction, and if nothing else it gives us that hunted stag — a masterful, multi-pointed (in every sense) symbol that might be the year's finest bit of dramatic invention.
The History Boys? It opens this week and the buzz is good, but it's the history girls who really ruled in 2006. ©