Why we watch movies about historical events

Mar 7, 2013

Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln and Ben Affleck’s Argo both did well at the box office and the Oscars. But why were these historical films so popular?

Western Michigan University professor of communication Steve Lipkin says people just like a good story. Films about real people and events are often criticized for historical inaccuracies. Both Lincoln and Argo have come for their share of brickbats in this area, as has Zero Dark Thirty, a controversial film about the search for Osama bin Laden. But Lipkin says intense fact-checking of Hollywood movies misses a larger and more interesting point: why are history-inspired movies so popular with the movie-going public now?

Lipkin says Hollywood has always mined the past for stories that will attract an audience. Sometimes the era depicted in a movie resonates with present day events. Argo’s depiction of the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran 34 years ago came not longer after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the American ambassador to that country last year.

Lincoln focused on the political process in Washington as it was in the 1860’s for movie audiences watching gridlock there today. Lipkin says such movies often click with audiences simply because they are compelling stories.

Even if a particular comes up short in the historical accuracy department, Lipkin says they can inspire people to investigate past eras on their own.