"Poetic Truths" are Everywhere

This month I watched two films about the past. One reconstructed a controversial police killing based on witnesses that the Department of Justice verified as credible and then offered commentary about the incident. The other, a dramatization of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, made up a slew of facts about history to make one of the most famous conservative leaders of the last century look bad. No prizes for guessing which has had more trouble being screened online. The Crown, created by Netflix, has been hailed and watched around the globe. What Killed Michael Brown?, an independent film about the killing in Ferguson, almost did not get an audience, after Amazon initially blocked it because of concerns about its content. There might not seem to be much in common between these two, but they share at least one quality: Both, in different ways, show the danger of poetic truth taking precedence over factual truth concerning events that shape the narrative of our politics. 

The Crown cost far more money to make and is beautifully filmed and often brilliantly acted (although Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher verges on caricature). But it is largely fantasy posing as fact. It would take an article of law review length to catalogue all its untruths in service of a left ideology, but two about Thatcher stand out. First, the film accurately reports that, shockingly, a young man named Michael Fagan managed to get into the Queen’s bedroom in the early morning hours of July 9, 1982. But almost every important detail about the incident is changed to make it an assault on Thatcher rather than the Queen. First, Fagan is portrayed as a down-on-his-luck victim of unemployment losing custody of his children rather than a petty criminal and sometime member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party with a wife and four children. Second, Fagan is shown making a speech to the Queen in her bedroom about his plight, which he blames on Thatcher’s policies. But according to Fagan himself, the Queen immediately left the room upon his entry.

Of course, the whole incident is interspersed with pictures of long unemployment lines. It is true that unemployment was high initially as Thatcher tried to revivify the economy. But the film, in its previous episodes, never makes clear the shamble that Britain faced when Thatcher was elected. Nor, in subsequent episodes, does it show the great revival of prosperity that Thatcherism created. Her policies were so successful that Labour under Tony Blair accepted a new political settlement. 

A second falsehood was even more outrageous. When Thatcher faced the leadership challenge that ultimately ended her premiership, she is shown asking the Queen to dissolve parliament to prevent her defeat. The obvious implication here is that she is power-mad, willing to involve the Crown in a partisan political squabble for her own benefit. There is no evidence whatsoever that this event occurred and, given Britain’s unwritten Constitution, no prime minister could hope that it would succeed.  

The one event that portrays Thatcher in the most flattering light, moreover, undermines her real achievements. After the end of Thatcher’s premiership, The Crown shows the Queen appointing her to the Order of Merit, the highest decoration that is in her personal gift. But, in an imagined private conversation, the Queen tells Thatcher she is doing so because she stood up to the men in the Conservative Party. Thus, the award is for her gender rather than for her accomplishment in transforming Britain, as it was in the case of Clement Attlee, the only other post-war Prime Minister to obtain the O.M. For The Crown, being a woman is Thatcher’s one redeeming quality.

The series is not much more fact-based when it comes to its main subject—the Royal family. There are obvious falsehoods, as when the Queen is portrayed as unaware that Thatcher would preside over a victory parade marking the retaking of the Falklands Islands and resenting her for it. In reality, she knew about the parade and was in the Pacific at the time. But the more damaging fabrications are those that make the Prince of Wales look like an arch-villain in his marriage with Princess Diana, largely based on invented private conversations. Prince Charles may not be a wholly admirable character, but he is not a reincarnation of Henry VIII minus the power to send his wife to the scaffold. 

The Crown’s blend of fact and conscious inversions of truth underscores the danger that what is curated on the screen will increasingly substitute for what occurs in the world.

The most ironic part of the episodes on their marriage is the presence of trigger warnings. Because Diana excessively eats rich deserts and decorously throws up into a sink, these episodes have an opening disclaimer: “The following episodes contain scenes of an eating disorder which some viewers may find alarming.” In fact, the warning that should accompany most episodes is that they contain knowingly fabricated events at variance with confirmed facts.

Given that this series is about royalty, it might be thought that The Crown could mount a Shakespearean defense of its fabrications. The Bard wrote history plays, sometimes with dubious or unverified facts and often to glorify the Tudors at the expense of their rivals, like Richard III. But this analogy is unavailing and not only because the prose contains nothing of the majesty of Shakespeare’s poetry. The events of The Crown are much closer in time and with better records than the ones about which he wrote, and thus the audience today brings a greater expectation of verisimilitude. The Crown indeed uses these records to try to underscore the accuracy of its portraiture. For instance, the character of Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s Deputy Prime minister, gives much of his famous and damaging resignation speech verbatim as it was recorded in the Commons. Shakespeare had to imagine all such speeches with the advantage that he could put the immortal words at Agincourt in Henry V’s mouth, but also with the signal that they were his own words. And it is not at all clear that Shakespeare included scenes that he knew to be false, as The Crown does time and time again. It goes far beyond selectively presenting facts to emphasize themes. Finally, a short play is inherently a less reality-based medium than a forty-part (and counting) film series.   

In contrast to the ease with which Netflix misrepresents the past, What Killed Michael Brown? begins with a careful reconstruction of Michael Brown’s death. One of the principal points of Shelby Steele could be seen as a comment on propaganda like The Crown: that the actual truth of an event often diverges from the “poetic truth” that groups put forth subsequently to advance their political agenda. Steele, however, is careful to base his reporting on the Obama Department of Justice report which debunked the story that Michael Brown was a victim who wanted to surrender, rather than an aggressor who tried to get the police officer Darren Wilson’s gun and then charged him, ignoring repeated commands to stop.

To be sure, the film also contains Steele’s views that liberalism has robbed African Americans of agency by making them appear to the world and to themselves as victims. It has also created conditions that make it more likely that young people in that community will not live upstanding lives. This claim is certainly debatable, but, unlike The Crown, Steele does not falsify the facts of someone’s life to make his own “poetic truth.”

The larger lesson of these two films is the peril posed by a world of illusion made possible by the power of our media, and the ideological mirages that such illusions can create. In an era where people increasingly move from screen to screen, there is an ever-greater danger that what is curated on the screen will substitute for what occurs in the world. The Crown’s blend of fact and conscious inversions of truth underscores that peril. At a time when traditional religion has declined, there is also an ever-greater danger that people feel the need for “poetic truths” to give them secular myths by which to live. A society that does not hold up a mirror to itself but instead goes through the looking glass of fantasy loses its connection to reality. And it is that reality that creates a foundation for shared understanding, social stability, and empirically based renewal.