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Why Does the Truth Matter in “The King’s Speech?”

Why Does the Truth Matter in “The King’s Speech?” (photo)

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I’ve talked to a lot of people about “The Social Network.” I’ve met people who didn’t like it because they felt it didn’t tell them enough about Facebook. I’ve met people who didn’t like it because they didn’t think it lived up to the hype or their expectations. But I haven’t met anyone who didn’t like “The Social Network” because it was untruthful. For whatever reason, it’s just not a big deal to most viewers. Oh sure, they may be curious about where director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin contorted the facts to serve their needs as filmmakers. But very few people looked at the truth, compared it to the movie, and said “this invalidates the film.”

Which is why I’m a bit confused by the growing controversy around “The Social Network”‘s biggest competitor at next month’s Academy Awards, “The King’s Speech.” Most of it surrounds this article by Christopher Hitchens for Slate. Entitled “Churchill Didn’t Say That,” Hitchens details the various ways in which the film, about King George VI (Colin Firth) and his battle to overcome his speech impediment on the eve of World War II, strays from the historical record. According to Hitchens, the film, directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, is particularly inaccurate in its depiction of Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) and the King as longtime allies. In fact, Churchill was extremely loyal to George VI’s predecessor, Edward VIII. Further, while the film implies that George VI immediately rallied England to defeat the Germans after his coronation, he actually supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s strategy of appeasement for as long as he could. Hitchens writes:

“The king himself, even after the Nazi armies had struck deep north into Scandinavia and clear across the low countries to France, did not wish to accept Chamberlain’s resignation. He ‘told him how grossly unfairly he had been treated, and that I was genuinely sorry.’ Discussing a successor, the king wrote that “‘, of course, suggested [Lord] Halifax.’ It was explained to him that this arch-appeaser would not do and that anyway a wartime coalition could hardly be led by an unelected member of the House of Lords. Unimpressed, the king told his diary that he couldn’t get used to the idea of Churchill as prime minister and had greeted the defeated Halifax to tell him that he wished he had been chosen instead. All this can easily be known by anybody willing to do some elementary research.”

To be fair, Hitchens does note that “The King’s Speech” is “an extremely well-made film with a seductive human interest plot.” But he also says that it constitutes “a major desecration of the historical record.” But why does that matter in the case of this film and not in the case of “The Social Network?”

Maybe the liberties Fincher and Sorkin took don’t constitute “major” desecrations. Maybe they avoided some blowback by working a commentary on the ambiguous nature of history and memory into the structure of their screenplay. But they didn’t exactly make a documentary either. In the film, their version of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is motivated to create Facebook for two reasons: his desire to join one of Harvard’s elite clubs, and to stick it to Erica (Rooney Mara), a girl who dumped him. But according to David Kirkpatrick, author of “The Facebook Effect,” the real Zuckerberg, “was uninterested in the clubs. Instead, he had concluded that sharing and transparency would redefine the Internet and was determined to experiment with software that exemplified his ideas. He also wanted to respond to widespread student dissatisfaction that Harvard had not put online its paper “facebook,” with photos of freshmen.” “The Social Network” ends, quite powerfully, with a shot of Zuckerberg — I am about to spoil the end of “The Social Network” here, people — obsessing over Erica’s Facebook page. But by that point in time Zuckerberg was already dating his longtime girlfriend Priscilla Chan, who is not mentioned once in Fincher and Sorkin’s version.

I’m not bringing these things up to condemn “The Social Network” but to observe its similarities to “The King’s Speech,” which is being condemned. In both cases, the changes are primarily omissions, and specifically omissions designed to refine and “movie-ize” their lead character’s motivations. Mark Zuckerberg might have just started Facebook because he was a smart, forward-thinking nerd, but there’s no movie there if he did. Making him a loveless dork crystallizes his need to belong and his inability to connect with the people around him, which is a perfect movie-ized reason to start a website about social connections. King George VI’s journey to overcome his speech impediment is inspiring, but it’s not truly dramatic without a climactic test — hence condensing (and movie-izing) the period between his coronation (May 12, 1937) and England’s declaration of war against Germany (September 3, 1939).

I’m not necessarily saying that makes what Hooper and Seidler (or Fincher and Sorkin) did okay. But you can’t have it both ways. If Sorkin can shape the truth as he sees fit to tell a story, then so can Seidler. You can’t pick and choose which one is an outrage based on whether or not you liked the movie.

And I do suspect “The Social Network” has gotten a bit of a pass because people love the movie so much, and because people like and respect Aaron Sorkin. I think Sorkin’s also been smart in the way he’s addressed the issue in the press. Although he’s said New York Magazine Magazine, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”

And that’s the party line I’ve seen repeated in most articles and reviews about the film: the movie isn’t trying to be a definitive historical record of Facebook and Zuckerberg, so to hold it to that standard is unfair, like judging a drama by how often it makes you laugh out loud. Seidler hasn’t given as many interviews, hasn’t made his intentions as clear, and maybe as a result, has not been given as much benefit of the doubt.

Now you might say that there’s also a moral difference between erasing a man’s girlfriend and erasing a man’s sympathy of Nazis. But it’s not as if “The King’s Speech” is pro-Nazi; it’s clearly and bluntly anti-Nazi. If Hooper and Seidler erased George VI’s dealings with Chamberlain and Hitler and made absolutely no mention of England’s political realities at the time, pretended the Nazis didn’t exist, you might have something. Though I’m not offended or outraged by either movie, I think the changes made in “The Social Network” are a lot more potentially serious because those people are still alive, and their existence can (and, I suspect, will) be inexorably changed by the versions of themselves millions of people watch onscreen.

Mostly I would hope that in 2011 we’re not so naive as viewers as to believe that what we see in a docudrama is the entire truth. We should have learned by now that the finer details of history are always sacrificed for the broad needs of drama.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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