When a movie begins with a title card stating “Based On A True Story” it can add an extra dimension to an already complex and difficult task.
Denial depicts the 1999 trial involving Holocaust denier David Irving and his libel suit against the well-respected Jewish-American scholar, Deborah Lipstadt. Given the seriousness of the subject matter, and the fact that the trial received widespread media coverage, telling this particular story requires a very delicate touch.
Usually an editor’s sole function is to find a way to shape hundreds of minutes of footage into a coherent and interesting narrative. In some cases there are mitigating factors: if product placement is a concern, screen time for particular actors, a director that won’t budge on certain shots. But for the most part, the job, however complex in execution, is pretty straightforward--to make sure the film makes dramatic sense, moment to moment, scene to scene. Whether or not it accurately depicts “real” events, or even “real” people isn’t much of a concern, as long as the finished product cleaves to the logic of the world the story has created.
When you add “based on a true story” to the mix, though, it can change priorities in the editing room. If there are elements of the original story that are essential but also inherently undramatic, or if there are a large number of primary characters, it can create a tension between pure storytelling and a commitment to accuracy that is often difficult to resolve. Some of these tensions can be blunted by the choices the screenwriters and directors make, but ultimately it falls to the editor to somehow square the circle between dramatic expediencies and faithfulness to the “true story”.
The central thesis of Denial is this: in order to combat someone as factually challenged and without scruples as David Irving, it requires an approach that relies on academic rigour and an argument based on unimpeachable primary documents, rather than appeals to emotion or moral outrage. Essentially it becomes a contest between cold, hard facts and demagogic manipulation of people’s fears and prejudice.
On paper, this sounds like a pretty compelling logline. But Denial is also a fundamentally difficult story to tell in a dramatic way--largely because the events in question occur over a long period of time, and there are numerous moving parts. Maintaining narrative cohesiveness when you have to continually flip from one event to another, and from one character to another, is no easy feat. This is at least part of the reason Rachel Weisz’s central performance as Lipstadt ends up feeling a little thin, since so much time has to be spent elsewhere.
There are films that achieve the kind of balancing act between drama and truth that marks them as superior examples of this kind of storytelling. All The President’s Men and last year’s Spotlight both manage to thread the needle between a fairly scrupulous adherence to the facts of the case, and sustaining the kind of dramatic tension that can raise a film up beyond a straightforward retelling of historical events. Denial gets halfway there, partly because Tom Wilkinson as Lipstadt’s Barrister manages to create an interesting fulcrum for the rest of the characters, but in general the film fails to maintain the delicate balance necessary.
Where this film truly resonates, and what makes it a worthwhile endeavour, isn’t necessarily located in its specific details. Instead, it is the parallel between Irving and a certain orange haired grifter currently competing for the office of the most powerful human in the world that Denial really hits it’s mark. There is something illuminating in a story that pits an amoral, half-bright social climber, prepared to do or say anything in order to further his own ends, against a group of well-intentioned people that represent a system that requires an adherence to the rule of law and principled behaviour.
If you didn’t quite always manage to pull off the high wire act that this kind of film requires, you still helped create something that is both compelling and timely. Denial is a good, but not great, film that, simply by existing in this particular political climate, reaches beyond the already important subject matter that it seeks to convey.