History in the Making

Tue, 11/26/2013 - 1:03pm

Steven Spielberg was awarded this year's Records of Achievement Award by the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Granting the award to a creator of fictional feature films has some obvious ambiguities. The award is given “to an individual whose work has fostered a broader national awareness of the history and identity of the United States through the use of original records.” Clearly, the National Archives did not give him the award to for works like “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jaws,” or “Jurassic Park,” but rather for works such as “Lincoln,” “The Color Purple,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Schindler's List.”

In discussion with documentarian Ken Burns at the award ceremony, Steven Spielberg discussed the tension between historical accuracy and entertainment. He described how every effort was made with the script of “Lincoln” to be true to the historical record, but occasionally a conscious choice had to be made to deviate a little for the drama to be maintained.

For example, one of very few such compromises was switching the voting order around for the 13th Amendment. When the vote was called originally, most of the congressmen who had been persuaded to switch their vote in favor of the bill came early on in the roll call. But to maintain the drama of the film, tension needed to be built.

Surprisingly, there were no vocal critics of such dramatic license at the award ceremony. On the contrary, enthusiasm about the lengths to which the filmmaker goes to create highly accurate historical features using documents such as those in the vaults below was palpable at every level.

The genius they were celebrating lies in the art of being able to craft a highly entertaining movie with historical integrity at its heart.

Steven Spielberg uses every source available to establish that integrity, including -- and especially -- personal testimony where possible. During his discussion with Burns at the award ceremony, he described how meeting with veterans during the making of “Saving Private Ryan” shaped his understanding of Omaha Beach that day in June 1944. One veteran described landing on the beach and crouching behind a tank trap surrounded by the deafening noise of war and the probability of death any moment. No document could have told the filmmaker that the man picked up a handful of sand on that bloodied strand and looked in wonder at the individual grains that made up the beach. It is in the combination of the profoundly human with the document-based research that bring such movies to life. It also the unlikely acts of human beings in the midst of crisis that provide pause and contemplation.

The relationship between “Schindler's List” and the USC Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive exemplifies just this point. Steven Spielberg often recalls that while making “Schindler’s List,” he spoke to survivors on the set who returning to Poland for the first time.

Their direct experienced may not be included in the script itself, but the authenticity of their voice is heard throughout the movie. Perhaps that explains why so many survivors speak so highly of the film itself. It’s not because their own lives are reflected, but because it has the overarching integrity that makes it truthful in a way that those who were there recognize profoundly in their own experience.

Critics may pick over whether the device of the girl in the red coat was cinematic manipulation or pure genius. Either way, the point is not whether Oscar Schindler saw such a child, but that he definitely saw the individual in the midst of the mass of condemned humanity. That we know from then many eyewitness accounts in the Visual History Archive of which there are at least 56 survivors who speak directly about him. The drama in the film carries the essence of their specific experiences with Schindler.

Taking the time to listen to survivors tell their story gave rise to an even bigger enterprise: the creation of the USC Shoah Foundation, which to date has recorded the equivalent of 52,000 feature-length life histories, providing the opportunity for us all to listen too. Like the movie from which they are borne, they seek to tell truth, have terrifying drama, and cannot escape the horrific consequences. Just like making a movie, the witnesses decide what story they want to tell and how to balance their total commitment to truthfulness with the need to convey the story in a way that can be understood.

Steven Spielberg being honored by the National Archive changes nothing for the filmmaker himself -- he has always sought historical integrity when making historical dramas -- it does however change something for our understanding of the making of history, because this award recognizes excellence in awareness of history and identity. Giving this award to Steven Spielberg unequivocally states that feature entertainment can -- and should -- be a part of how history shapes us.

Stephen Smith