I didn't really enjoy "Zero Dark Thirty." It wasn't because of the acting, directing or any other factor that I generally use to evaluate a film. Instead, it was because I walked into the theater feeling as though something was going to be settled -- that I was watching the film not to enjoy it but rather to engage in the wider political debate about torture.
The same went for "Django Unchained." My friends suggested we go see it, and I sat down in the theater knowing nothing of the film except that it was Tarantino and that Spike Lee didn't like it. My friend's mother, who had read reviews, told me to "look out" for the historical inaccuracies that everyone had been complaining about.
In retrospect, I am extremely grateful that no one criticized the portrayal of the Dust Bowl in "The Wizard of Oz," or british poverty in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory." Watching a movie used to be a way to detach oneself from reality, to enjoy the world through a lens that we otherwise never get to see. Sadly, going to a movie today means exploring an odd extension of reality -- we need to be skeptical and critical as if we were watching the news.
With stories of slavery, Abraham Lincoln, Bin Laden and Iranian hostages all sweeping the box offices this year, debates about the facts and the obligations of filmmakers have swept the mainstream. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott ask, "Is art supposed to make us better people, give us moral instruction, work toward the social good or exist merely for our personal pleasure?"
To which I respond: Since when was this ever a question? Since when were movies considered a reliable source, comparable to the many books and primary sources we have at our disposal? My college professors would never accept "J. Edgar" as a scholarly source for a history paper, just as they will never accept "Zero Dark Thirty" as a serious piece of historical evidence -- even if they are "based on true events."
Movies are not documentaries. They are intended to entertain and artfully tell a story. No filmmaker is trying to answer all of histories questions, or settle any hotbed political debates. If, in thirty years, our nation's policy on torture is being dictated by a work of Hollywood, then, well, we have much bigger problems than we thought.
So what are the obligations of filmmakers? There are none. The movie theater ought to remain the one place where the cynicism and complexities of everyday life are not welcome. When it comes to questions of the cold-hard facts of history and politics, we have Congress, newspapers, and the library. Keep it there, and out of the theater.