Getting the Facts: How Historical Movies Are Made

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SWBAT identify the main points in a news article about an historical event

Big Idea

How are historical events presented to us as news?

Unit Overview

This unit lasted approximately seven days and was taught jointly in English and U.S. Government classes.  It can be taught in a single class, but it would take ten to fourteen days to complete.  We had several objectives in this unit:

  • Students would read about the historical events presented in the movie "Argo" before they watched the movie.
  • Students would read a newspaper article about the Iran Hostage Crisis and compare that with a news profile of the six embassy workers who escaped looking at the difference in language and tone.
  • Students would watch the movie "Argo" taking notes about what events in the movie are different from the news profile they read. 
  • Students would present on a different aspect of bias an inaccuracy in the film.

Introducing Bias in Hollywood Movies

10 minutes

When class begins I ask students a question:  How accurate are the Hollywood movies when presenting history?   

The students have varying answers from "some movies are pretty accurate, like 'Flags of Our Fathers' or 'Flyboys'" to "Hollywood movies aren't meant to be accurate, they're entertainment; I can't believe everything I see in a Hollywood movie."  

"How do you know that the movies are accurate?" I ask them.  "When you go to the movies and you see a movie that's has 'Based on a True Story' in the credits, are you more likely to believe the events in the movie as true?"

The students agree that they don't spend much time thinking about accuracy when they go to a movie, they are there for the fun, for entertainment. Since we've just finished a unit on argumentation, I ask the students what is needed to prove something, and they quickly answer: "Evidence."

One of the articles listed on the New York Times webpage says this about the limitations of accuracy in film: 

 "the film, unlike a historian’s book, cannot provide the sources and arguments that might support the countless decisions of its makers about controversial claims and interpretations. Further, since it is a dramatization, the filmmakers — even rigorously faithful ones — are very likely at points within the film to exercise their right to override historical accuracy for the sake of better theater."

I read this brief quote to students and ask them if they agree.  Once again the students come back to the point that movies are entertainment, and we aren't there to learn anything.  

"But could you walk out of a movie theater thinking, 'Wow, I had no idea our government was willing to risk lives to save civilians?' Could you walk out of a movie like 'Argo' and think you no what the Iran Hostage Crisis was all about.

"This is where I want to talk to you about bias," I write the word on the board. "We had it as a vocabulary word awhile back does anyone remember what it means?"

Students remember that bias has to do with one-sidedness, prejudice or only looking at part of the picture to draw the conclusions they want to draw. 

"Does this happen in 'Argo'?", I ask them.  They all agree that since it's an American made movie it's going to show biased tendencies, and that not everyone is going to have equal time in the story. 

"Like the quote I read you above, you need to conduct your own investigation into the role of bias in this film and whether or not this is historically accurate. Treat the film like one of the argumentative papers you just wrote.  What are the sources for the film? What are some of the biases that are obvious, then start reading on the backstory to get a sense if there are more that aren't readily apparent."

For our last project in English and Government we are going to look at the process of revealing bias in movies.  The next time a movie "based on a true story" comes out you can use this simple process to identify and understand the bias present in the movie.

I then handout the the assignment sheet that details the project and the students work together to identify their groups and the question they want to answer in their presentation.

All questions come from The New York Times Learning Blog


Using DICE to Gather Ideas

100 minutes

I direct students to a 2007 Wired investigative report about the six embassy escapees who hid in the residences of Canadian diplomats until they were rescued.  I ask my students to read the events in the article very carefully, stopping at different sections to complete a DICE writing.

DICE is an acronym for Disturbing, Interesting, Confusing, and Enlightening.  It is a way for students to methodically engage with a text, especially one that is full of facts and ideas. Using DICE students can approach the text personally, recording their reactions as they read. Each letter represents a different, correlative reaction to the text from comprehension to agreement. The idea is that these reactions on close examination can reveal deeper understandings of the text.  DICE is a good way for reluctant readers to engage with the text because it asks only what their reactions are, and the response can be as little as one word. 

I divided the Wired article into four sections and students used the Ctl + F function to find the different sections.

Beginning to….”The escapees were on their own.”

The CIA was in chaos…. to “And that someone was him.”

“On the run in Tehran….” to “Studio Six would disappear without a trace.”

“Everyone was in costume… to “They made it out.”

 Students work on this task independently with the idea that there will be whole group or small group discussion afterward to further explore student reactions and to develop those reactions into clearer understandings of the text.