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History, film make complicated bedfellows

Brian Doxtader | Friday, February 16, 2007

Princess Diana’s passing was less than a decade ago, yet already “The Queen” is in theaters. All of the principle characters in the film (Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Tony Blair) are all still alive, which gives the film a much different historical feel than it might otherwise maintain. Because the event is so recent, it’s almost impossible to give “The Queen” a fully historical perspective, especially since we equate “history” with events that occurred long ago.

Though numerous films are made about real-life events, they often feel much different when made so soon after the event has taken place – this is perhaps why they often strike a chord with audiences. A film like “United 93,” made only five years after 9/11, resonates much differently to a contemporary audience than it would had it been made years from now.

Similarly, a movie like “All the President’s Men,” which follows the Watergate investigation, was made in 1976, only a few short years after the scandal itself – for American audiences in 1976, the event itself was still very fresh. This contextualizes the film in a much different way than it would with a more detached audience.

Thus, it becomes much more difficult to judge such films based on their cinematic merits alone, and it becomes even more difficult to discern how audience reactions are affected by time and context.

For example, would “Titanic” have been as successful, or perhaps even more successful, had the film been made only a few years after the boat actually sunk? Or did the passage of time radically change our perception of the event, allowing the love story between Leo and Kate – rather than the sinking itself – to dominate the film?

Fifty years from now, audiences will look at films like “The Queen” and “Black Hawk Down” much differently. Without the context of an event so close to our time, they simply become historical movies, without contemporary perspectives weighing them down.

This detachment allows for much greater critical clarity – today’s audiences can easily see that both “Triumph of the Will” (a 1933 Nazi propaganda film) and “Birth of a Nation” (a 1915 film that celebrates the Ku Klux Klan) are technical marvels, but morally reprehensible.

“The Queen” is no doubt a great movie, but its contemporary subject matter and modern content make it a difficult film to assess on its cinematic merits alone. Like “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan,” to criticize the movie seems to be criticizing the content, which is especially difficult considering the sensitive (and rightfully so) nature of the stories and history associated with those films. It is important to detach from the context and judge the film itself, because different movies can approach the same topic from a variety of angles.

For example, both “United 93” and “World Trade Center” deal with 9/11, but each does so in its own way. The former takes a stark, almost documentary-style approach to the subject matter, while the latter is more characteristic of traditional Hollywood-style storytelling. While the strengths and weaknesses of each film may be categorized within the context of the tragedy, this is not, ultimately, how we should assess a picture.

History grants clarity, and distance from an event will allow us to see it much more clearly. As Elizabeth II makes clear to Tony Blair in director Stephen Frears’ film, time will tell how history views Her Majesty – so too will time tell how history views “The Queen.”