“After weeks of badgering from a friend, I saw Frost/ Nixon a few years back and left the theatre pleasantly surprised. When I called her to discuss the film, she seemed disappointed in my reaction. As a scholar of Twentieth Century United States History, she was anxious to compare notes on the historical inaccuracies she documented in the film. I had gone in with the same game plan, but somewhere in between the endless parade of advertising, forthcoming features, and the opening credits, I lapsed into casual moviegoer mode. I truly wanted to see how director Ron Howard would tell the story and so I was able to muster the advice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “suspend disbelief” in deference to “poetic faith.”
It helps that I had no professional stake in the movie. My friend reminded me of my incessant petulance after seeing the movie Panther in 1995. As a young graduate student eager to reclaim my topic, I marched into the theatre with a pen and pad and emerged two hours later, with my hands literally bathed in ink from my furious attempt to detail and highlight every factual error.
In this sense, a historian in a history film is very much like the proverbial bull in a China shop. At every moment, we threaten to shatter the delicate handiwork of the shop owner without regard to the intricate and difficult nature of her task. Films that delve into history have the toughest audience. They must satisfy the movie going public’s desire to see a good story, complete with a satisfactory ending — with the reality that the study of the past offers us very few examples of neat, self-contained, happy endings.”
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