Docutopia #33: Trolling the Nonfiction Archive: From JFK and Argo to No

Why is it that filmmakers making movies about actual historical events feel compelled to insert real documentary footage of the events they’re dramatizing? Is it to legitimatize their movie-made fantasias, an attempt to anchor their colorful illusions in black-and-white facts and stoic authority figures, from former Presidents to Walter Cronkite?

Yes, of course.

But should we keep buying it? Historians have often suggested that history is just another narrative, bended to the ideological will of whoever is telling it. As the famous saying goes: History is written by the victors. Or Hollywood. Indeed, lots of historical movies excerpt from nonfiction archives as if to say: This is a real story! This is an important story! And this version of the story is true!

From Oliver Stone’s JFK to this year’s big history-based dramas Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, many Hollywoodized versions of true stories begin with archival material to add import and veracity to their proceedings. Just as JFK‘s initial credit sequence begins with excerpts of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous speech, warning against the dangers of the “military-industrial-complex,” followed by news footage of President Kennedy’s rise to power, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty employ real material—a mini-documentary on Iran’s pre-Islamic political history; panicked phone calls and billowing smoke from the World Trade Center on 9/11—to kick-start their narratives.

Since Argo‘s story is explicitly about the blurring of illusion and reality, stagecraft and spycraft, the film’s mix of documentary news images—of President Carter speaking on TV sets; of reporter Mike Wallace interviewing the Ayatollah—with entirely fabricated sequences of suspenseful getaways may make some thematic sense. Then again, Argo isn’t using these real-life images to emphasize the movie’s “truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” message. It’s using them the old-fashioned way: to heighten the “reality” of the film and further nudge the viewer into willfully suspending their sense of disbelief.

This seamless blend of reenactment and archival record is particularly problematic when a film is chronicling a major traumatic event—those incidents of national catastrophe or crisis, such as JFK’s assassination or 9/11, which help define a country’s myths and ideologies—as it helps to privilege this version of the history above all others. By mixing in documentary footage, the filmmakers are presenting their movie as if it were analogous to a real chronicle of those events, instead of just one interpretation. And for an incident as important as say, the beginning of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the true events are always far more complicated than what the movies show. But as Bob Woodward once noted of All the President’s Men, another political thriller that includes news footage of President Nixon and other Administration officials, a movie has special power because it “becomes the story that people know and remember.” This is a familiar complaint against such movies, also leveled at Confession of a Nazi Spy way back in 1939. But as these recent films show, the trend continues unabated.

In Zero Dark Thirty, we glimpse archival images of everything from 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden to news reports about the London transit bombings of 2005, the CIA team killed in Afghanistan in 2009, and the attempted car bombing of Times Square in 2010, all firmly positioning this fictional retelling alongside these traumatic, actually lived experiences. Just as many horror movies are made all the more terrifying when what’s depicted is based on atrocities that actually took place—i.e. that crazy killer could come into my home and chop me up!—Zero Dark Thirty utilizes outside reality to heighten the stakes for the viewer.

Near the end of Zero Dark Thirty, however, there’s a crucial scene that falters because of this very framework the film has employed. We see a figure meant to be a dead Osama Bin Laden lying in a body bag. But because there is no real-life referent to what is being depicted—no news images exist of Bin Laden’s corpse (as there were of a hung Sadaam Hussein—the result is more uncanny than effective. It’s obvious that this is not the real Osama Bin Laden, but an actor wearing a bushy gray beard. Thus, the filmmakers have dug themselves into a hole. Without archival footage to back up this revelatory moment, we are left with an unintentional rupture in the film’s illusion. Alas, it’s just a movie. And wouldn’t the filmmakers have loved to get their hands on some real macabre picture of the infamous terrorist’s remains, helping to seal the triumphant moment in the viewer’s mind?

By contrast, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s smarter and more enjoyable No, opening in theaters next week, fully embraces its fictions. A darkly humorous account of Chile’s 1989 referendum on the leadership of dictator Augusto Pinochet and the ad-men that crafted the campaign to topple him, No uses archival footage ripped from the period, but also simultaneously mounts a vigorous deconstruction of those same media images. The film takes as its subject the process of how these images are created, whether in the propagandistic portrayals of Pinochet as a protective fatherly leader or in the representation of a democratic alternative as a populist “We Are the World”-type music video.

Larrain includes the opposition’s actual “Happiness is Coming” campaign commercials from the time—with their array of unrelated images of mimes, a man dancing on a bridge, smiling faces, picnics, horse-riding, etc, they’re almost too silly to be believed—then restages scenes of their constructions, further showing the absurdity of what’s on display. For example, Larrain fictionalizes a debate about the use of an out-of-place French baguette in the picnic shot. But it looks good, argues the film’s protagonist, Gael Garcia Bernal’s charismatic marketing guru. Images trump issues.

The film also includes more disturbing documentary footage—of clashes between citizens and the military, aggressively wielding batons—but most of these images are still framed within the context of political ads; they are further evidence of the way historical narratives can be constructed. You might think Argo would be similarly aware of such manipulation, considering it is about, in part, Hollywood’s manipulations. But when President Carter is heard over the film’s end credits, it is meant to sanction the story we have just seen as analogous to the one the former President is talking about. Argo presents its fiction and Carter’s reality as one and the same.

Larrain, however, questions both. No‘s use of 1980s-era U-matic videocameras puts the film’s story on a similar retrograde playing field as its archival footage. But unlike say, Forrest Gump, which seamlessly blends archival footage into its shiny American-Hollywood mythos, the overall look of No suggests less an illusion than another lo-res construction. In No, history is always a mediated experience, while Argo and Zero Dark Thirty wield archival material as a dubious tool for their own propaganda.

Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for

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  1. Joshua Ranger 05:58 PM

    I’m having trouble seeing how Larrain’s approach differs in any significant way. On the whole these are all means that media has always used to denote realism — from archival footage to costuming and from period correct accents to actual dirt under the fingernails (a la Daniel Day Lewis in The Crucible) or makeup suggesting it. It’s a fool’s game to identify which realism is the most realistic because it’s always a moving target and always ready to be re-assessed and found wanting (god forbid Larrain used U-maticSP if he meant to use U-matic). I agree that in Argo the use of archival footage (both in the film and for research) was highlighted in a questionable way (the end credits felt very show-offy/defensive), as well as that there is definitely a problem with the appropriation of the past to elide holes in logic or creative license. However is No superior because it more obviously criticizes than the other films you cite?

    February 7, 2013 | Permalink Reply