Should that lay claim to truth be free to lie? The old question is raised again by two now on general release. Argo tells the story of the escape of American diplomats from Iran in 1979. Zero Dark Thirty tells of the more recent killing of Osama bin Laden. Both are already controversial.
The first, Argo, has understandably enraged the British ambassador in Tehran at the time, Sir John Graham, by stating that the Brits "turned away" the fugitive American diplomats. It left him "very distressed that the film-makers got it so wrong". He says the British embassy took in the fugitives and they moved to the Canadian embassy only when the British one became exposed to attack. One of the Americans, Robert Anders, has fully corroborated Graham's comments, saying the film "is absolutely untrue. The British made us very comfortable and were very helpful … We are forever grateful."
Meanwhile, Zero Dark Thirty depicts gruesome scenes of CIA waterboarding as contributing to the hunt for Bin Laden. Those involved claim this allegation is untrue and, worse, justifies "good cause" torture. The film's director, Kathryn Bigelow, says hers is "just a movie" not a documentary and pleads her first amendment right "to create works of art" and speak her conscience. She is apparently engaged in a campaign not for but against torture.
We are here back in the "factional" territory of Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) and Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father (1993) among many others. Stone was seeking to prove that Kennedy was shot by more than one gunman, which required him to inter-cut newsreels with fictional scenes he staged. Sheridan's film about the trial of the Guildford Four sought to portray it as "one of the most significant miscarriages of justice in the western world this century". Eager "unequivocally … to influence the public", he produced what the historian the late Robert Kee called "a farrago of rubbish", sorely weakening his case.
Makers of films captioned as "true stories" claim either that fabrications do not matter as they are "just making movies", or that they are justified in a higher cause. Yet they can hardly be both. Cinema in my view is the defining cultural form of the age. It deserves to be taken seriously, and therefore to be criticised for shortcomings. If the most celebrated of "docudramas", Spielberg's Schindler's List, could go to lengths to authenticate its storyline, why should not any film claiming truth to history?
Fiction may be free and facts expensive, but film-makers are not short of researchers. Commentators may be accused of choosing facts to prove their opinions - plague the thought - but that is different from falsification. Nor do they excuse lies as higher truth. The licence to report carries responsibilities. Inaccuracy in print is vulnerable to litigation and now the added horror of Lord Justice Leveson. Plagiarism and fabrication are serious journalistic crimes. A newspaper that accused Graham of anti-American cowardice would lead to fierce rebuttal and retraction. Bigelow, like Stone and Sheridan, feels justified in using possible inaccuracy to advance a cause. If they got it wrong, it was art.
When communists rewrote history and wiped leaders from old photographs we ridiculed them. Yet we do the same. Claiming the lie as art leaves the door open for Chinese and other censors to pick and choose their own comforting "truths". Nothing should be banned, but the British Board of Film Classification should make itself useful and revise its categories. If "true story" appears in a film's preamble and is clearly wrong, the film should carry certificate L, for lie. We would then know where we stood.