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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The malentendu of September

Brace yourself. Because I am going to tell you something extremely disturbing about that politician you admire, that magazine you subscribe to or that blog that you read.

I regret to inform you that the people behind all of your favorite sources of information and insight are engaged in… propaganda! That’s right. They are selectively giving you facts—and sometimes not even facts—that are designed very manipulatively to get you to think in a certain way and to believe certain things.

This is the logical continuation of our discussion last week about the controversial ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11. But, before I proceed down that path (maybe next week?), there is something nearly equally as disturbing, for me personally anyway, that has come out of the discussions and debates over that TV production. I have lost one of my favorite nouns. No, it’s worse than that. I seem to have found out that one of my favorite nouns never actually existed. At least not with the meaning that I thought it had. A favorite arrow in the quiver of my vocabulary turns out not to have been there at all.

The noun in question is “docudrama,” an obvious joining of the words “documentary” and “drama.” In all the opinion pieces about The Path to 9/11 and the post-mortems and the pre-mortems, authors kept bandying the term “docudrama” about it. “Ha!” I kept chuckling to myself, “Mr. Smarty-pants writer doesn’t even know what a docudrama is.” Then I came across a column by John Fund of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Now I had fully expected a writer for the WSJ’s famously conservative op-ed page to join others on the right in defending The Path to 9/11 but, to my surprise, he didn’t. Instead, he took the opportunity to trash docudramas in general. His beef was that films in this genre pretend to give us history but instead give us an interpretation of history. “The makers of docudramas,” wrote Fund, “always have smooth explanations for why they need to adjust history for the purposes of storytelling.” He lumped into the category, along with The Path to 9/11, the TV miniseries The Reagans and the UK’s Channel 4 production of Death of a President, which played at the recent Toronto Film Festival and depicted George W. Bush being assassinated.

“But none of these are docudramas!” I yelled at my computer screen. “You’re misusing the term!”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the political divide, Bill Robinson wrote a review of The Path to 9/11 on The Huffington Post website. Thankfully, he did not refer to the miniseries as a docudrama. He called it a “mockumentary,” another term that I like to use. Not surprisingly, he trashed the film. Interestingly, however, he didn’t condemn it, at least explicitly, for inaccuracy but rather for bad plotting and internal contradictions of logic. (Of course, as we all know too well, just because events are badly plotted and contradict themselves doesn’t mean that they didn’t actually happen.) Anyway, Robinson seemed most upset by the fact that a female CIA agent character (played by Amy Madigan) was identified only by a code name, something he saw as a gross act of hypocrisy. I guess he has inside information that the makers of this miniseries are the ones who really outed Valerie Plame. (Patrick Fitzgerald, call your office!) Anyway, after ravaging the production, he ended up conceding that ABC was right not to have been pulled it off the air because, after all, censorship is bad.

While reading all of these articles, it was slowly dawning on me that no one else with a computer was actually using the term “docudrama” in the same way that I was using it. Finally, I had to consider the difficult possibility that maybe I was the one who was wrong. But my grasp of the term had always felt pretty solid to me. I even remember when I first heard or read it. It was when the made-for-TV movie The Missiles of October aired in 1974. I definitely remember reading an explanation that the docudrama was a new hybrid genre in which actual events are recreated, with actors playing real people, with actions and words adhering as closely as possible to what the records document actually happened. I remember reading that the screenplay for Missiles was taken almost entirely verbatim from transcripts of the actual meetings and conversations depicted, or at least from the documented recollections of actual eyewitnesses. There were no “imagined events” and no “composite characters.”

For those who don’t remember, The Missiles of October chronicled a couple of weeks in 1962 when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. came very close to a nuclear exchange over the fact that the latter had begun to install missiles in Cuba, within easy range of targets of the U.S. The movie was striking for its sense of realism and its you-are-there air of authenticity. The illusion was enhanced by the portrayal of William Devane as President Kennedy, given his strong physical resemblance to the late president. One of the film’s sources was a book by the then-attorney general, Robert Kennedy, played in the movie by Martin Sheen. Such was Devane’s portrayal that, for decades afterward, I could not look at him without thinking of JFK. In later years, he would go on to play JFK’s father-in-law in another TV miniseries (about Jackie Kennedy) and another president on Stargate SG-1. And Sheen would go on to play JFK himself, in yet another TV miniseries (1983’s Kennedy), and of course the fictional president Jed Bartlet on TV’s The West Wing, where he was reunited with Devane, who played his secretary of state.

Anyway, from the time of The Missiles of October, I was under the distinct (if apparently misguided) impression that there were strict rules about what could and could not be called a docudrama, that it had to be steeped in documented facts and verified by primary sources. Movies that invented scenes and dialog and even characters (even if “based on actual events” or “based on a true story”) were, in my mind, something altogether different. They were adaptations or dramatizations or, if enough liberties were taken, fictionalizations. This last category is where I put Oliver Stone movies like JFK and Nixon.

So imagine my surprise when I checked Merriam-Webster and found that a docudrama is “a drama for television, motion pictures, or theater dealing freely with historical events especially of a recent and controversial nature” (emphasis mine). Or when I did a quick search of Cinemania and found the term applied to more than 40 films released between 1937 (Elephant Boy, starring Sabu and based on a Rudyard Kipling novel!) and 1995 (Ron Howard’s Apollo 13). The list includes not only such relatively obvious examples as Scott of the Antarctic, The Atlanta Child Murders, Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but also the 1982 Arthur Hiller film Making Love, in which Harry Hamlin steals Michael Ontkean away from Kate Jackson. It should be noted that a key culprit for tagging so many movies with the “docudrama” label is one Roger Ebert, who throws the word “docudrama” around in his reviews like peanuts at a baseball game. Intriguingly, Merriam-Webster pinpoints the coinage of the word “docudrama” in “circa 1961” but doesn’t say what artistic work actually inspired it. Judgment at Nuremberg perhaps? Maybe the coinage was an accident. Maybe the original term was meant to be “docket drama.”

Contrarily, my version of Merriam-Webster does not include “docudrama’s” opposite number, “mockumentary.” A clear blending of “mock” and “documentary,” that word’s meaning seems less slippery. It is simply a movie that gives every indication of being a documentary but isn’t, usually to comic effect. My (admittedly dated) version of Cinemania uses the word “mockumentary” exactly one time, to describe the 1992 Tim Robbins film Bob Roberts. (Apparently, it is not a word that had yet caught on with Roger Ebert.) My earliest recollection of the word was related to the release of Rob Reiner’s 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap, arguably the granddaddy of the genre. Indeed, that film’s writers and stars (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) have become the masters of that particular art, although others—like Robbins and Peter Jackson (Forgotten Silver) and Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America)—have contributed impressive entries in the genre. Does The Path to 9/11 qualify as a mockumentary, as Bill Robinson suggests? Probably not, since it at least aims to give the historical record. More importantly, it apparently isn’t funny, which also seems to be an implied requirement. But if that’s true, then The Death of a President may not qualify either.

Anyway, I’m still in mourning for my version of the word “docudrama.” My definition made it a useful term, describing a category of film distinct from those described by any other terms. If everybody else is right about its meaning, then it really is no different than “dramatization” or “historical adaptation” or any other number of terms that would mean the same thing. Really, why have the word “docudrama” at all? Just to give Roger Ebert one more word he can use?

-S.L., 21 September 2006

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