Re “American Sniper” and “Selma”:
Asking whether a fictional film is historically accurate has to be one of the silliest questions ever. And yet it is posed repeatedly by today’s popular film critics.
All bio-pics are fictional! Do people who read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando find it lacking because it has “fictional elements”?
One has to beware of naive realism (and even the more erudite mimetic theory of art) vis-a-vis the visual arts.
What a film sells itself as is bunk. It doesn’t dictate how one theorizes the film, which is narrative fiction.
However, one should acknowledge a distinct danger (which Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma,” too hastily elides): because many Americans are not historically educated, they take films that are “based on a true story” to be the historical truth. But the antidote to this would be to make it very plain that Hollywood films are not documentaries (which are also narrative constructions), no matter what the filmmaker proclaims about his/her film. One can learn valuable things from narrative fiction, but it should neither be expected to be, nor taken as, the mirror image of reality.