What do we owe history?

It’s awards season in Hollywood! I wish I could say I’ve watched any of the films that will be nominated for best picture this year, but I haven’t. The only movie I saw in the theater this year was X-Men: Days of Future Past, and not surprisingly, there is no Oscar buzz surrounding it.

I’ve never been a movie buff, and a large percentage of the movies I watch feature someone dressed in a superhero get up. Case in point: I recently chose to stay home and re-watch X-Men: First Class over going to the theater with a friend to see a film nominated for a Golden Globe. While X-Men movies will always be irrelevant to discussions of what will win best picture, watching X-Men: First Class reminded me of the ethical questions about historical accuracy it raised the first time I watched it, questions that will always be relevant to writers of creative nonfiction. Below are some thoughts I wrote on the topic a few years ago after watching it in the theater…

 

I don’t go to the movies often; when I think about how I can save $20 if I just wait a few months to watch it on Netflix, the decision to stay home is almost inevitable. Occasionally, a movie will come out that I absolutely need to see as soon as it opens in theaters—like X-Men: First Class.I should admit I’m a comic book junkie. I have an embarrassingly large collection, and the X-Men series makes up the majority of it. (I have over 40 years of issues archived in my attic—borderline certifiable, I know.) I’ve spent my life reading X-Men comics, and I can detail the trends in storytelling they display, how history is refracted within their pages from issue to issue and decade to decade—but I won’t. I understand that there aren’t many people as interested in the minutia of the X-Men as I am, and I’ve accepted that conversations about Kitty Pride’s decade long search for a costume or the Oedipal relationship between Professor X and Cyclops are better left for the local comic book shop.But movies based on comic books aren’t meant to appeal solely to obsessive fanboys like myself. Like all big budget films, they’re designed to draw as large an audience as possible to the box office, and I’ve learned to subdue my urge to rant about the minor betrayals of facts related to the characters in these movies. It’s just not worthwhile to parse this or that change of sequence in a story, how a character wouldn’t have existed then, wouldn’t have said that, couldn’t have used their powers like they did, and I do my best to reign in that nerdy impulse.X-Men: First Class is set in the early 1960’s during the heart of the Cold War. Mutant supervillain Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) wants mutants to rule the world, so he and his groupies coerce the USA to place nuclear warheads in Turkey and the USSR to move missiles to Cuba in response. Shaw commandeers the Soviet ship carrying the missiles to Cuba through a US blockade, hoping to instigate nuclear war. If all goes according to his nefarious plan, mutants would take control of the world in the fallout— ‘nuff said.X-Men: First Class has plenty of instances that draw my ire. As I left the theater, I privately obsessed over the liberties that writers Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer took with the history of the X-Men. As I replayed the movie in my mind and catalogued all the details that irked me, I realized I wasn’t bothered at all by the changes the movie made to the historical setting of the story, the actual events that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I’m not an objective audience; I went to watch a movie about the X-Men, not Cold War politics. But when I asked the friend with me how she felt about the movie rewriting the historical record of the Cuban Missile Crisis, she hadn’t really thought about it. Once she did, she wasn’t bothered by those changes either—and actually found them to be an exciting twist to the movie.

As far as storytelling and character development go, the drama that develops between Shaw and the fledgling X-Men won’t garner much attention from the Academy. However, the insertion of their story within the historical context of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, in particular, makes this movie more inspired than most of its pulpy cohort. Turner and Singer made the choice to change the details of one of the most defining moments in American history and no one seems to have any problem with that. I haven’t found one review that lambastes them for their irresponsible manipulation of historical accuracy, not a single critic who denigrates them for misrepresenting the truth of the standoff that had the world teetering on the verge of nuclear annihilation. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case—the historical revision in X-Men: First Class has garnered the most consistently positive reaction from critics and moviegoers alike.

Outside of Hollywood, historical revisionism isn’t a new concept. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson explains, “History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable ‘truth’ about past events and their meaning.” McPherson suggests that truth is an unstable state, and he acknowledges that the legers of history must occasionally be re-calibrated to represent changes that arise in how we think, feel, interpret, and react to any event.

When it comes to Hollywood’s use of historical revisionism, the intent isn’t to more “truthfully” represent what took place. Turner and Singer weren’t trying to set the record straight on the Cuban Missile Crisis. They hadn’t found any evidence that mutants were behind the escalating tensions that lead to the stand-off between the world’s nuclear superpowers in 1962. They didn’t uncover any classified documents that suggested the Soviet missiles weren’t constructed on Cuba, but were actually ferried there on a warship escorted by a submarine that was eventually pulled out of the ocean and dragged through the air by Magneto, a mutant who did so while clinging to the landing gear of a futuristic jet called the Blackbird.

There have been plenty of films prior to X-Men: First Class that have written themselves into our most important historical and political moments—JFK, Schindler’s List, Apollo 13, and Flight 93, to name a few. Unlike X-Men: First Class, these examples follow the rules of historical fiction, which has long been a way for writers to recreate the personal lives of historical figures without overtly betraying the official narrative of the events they participated in. But X-Men: First Class isn’t historical fiction; it fictionalizes history, changing the way the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded—even changing the reason it occurred in the first place—and Turner and Singer did so to better suit their storytelling needs, to better appeal to their audience.

* * *

What responsibility does a writer have to the facts of history? Given the acclaim for the historical revision in X-Men: First class, apparently none—as long as it’s classified as fiction. I find that ironic, and wonder why the details we use to tell our personal narratives are more scrutinized than those of official historical events. Why are we outraged by the liberties James Frey took with his memoir A Million Little Pieces but not by those Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer took with American history in X-Men: First Class?

The disparity in reaction speaks to the rules we allow to be broken in certain contexts, but not others—and I’m not exactly sure what the difference is. When McPherson states, “Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time,” he is referring to public and shared history. But isn’t the simple choice by a writer to share a personal account of anything an indication that he or she has a new perspective gained by the passage of time? If so, why can’t the facts of that writer’s experience be revised to better represent the truth they see in their own life? What if I admitted to you that I never watched X-Men: First Class? What if I told you I don’t read comic books, let alone own a single issue of the X-Men series, but instead lied because it helped me convey what I think is important about this topic? Are the facts of my life more essential to you than those of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

People are invested enough in the veracity of personal narratives to be outraged when they discover everything isn’t as they think it should be. People that respond with anger have a personal stake in what they’re reading—and they care—just like I do when it comes to the X-Men. Unlike fiction, the rules we suppose for nonfiction make fanboys out of all of us. An agreement on rules allow what I write about myself to be more meaningful than the annals of history and they make stories related to my personal experience more important to write than any fiction—even if they couldn’t get a single person to the box office.

 

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