|Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt|
Admittedly, there's much to annoy about this movie. Lipstadt's role is not well-scripted, so she comes across as an emotional child-woman (an image reinforced by what was apparently meant to be a 1990s-style permed bob cut but looks more like the wayward curls of a Shirley Temple). As a child-woman and an overly-emotional American, she has to be reined in and schooled by the wiser and more reasoned British (mostly) men on her legal team. The brilliant and morally perfect, as well as avuncular English barrister, Richard Rampton, played by Tom Wilkinson, particularly brings her to gentle heel. While she is not ritually humiliated, for which I give the movie credit, the contrition of her apology once she sees the folly of her ways has an unsettling note of abjection.
|Wilkinson as Rampton gathers the facts at Auschwitz while Lipstadt emotes. Yes the gender stereotypes grate.|
In a better movie, we would feel Deborah's outrage and pain at her legal team's strategy. If the movie had been more successful, we as an audience would initially feel she should be able to say her piece in court rather than be muzzled. We would feel that she should, as she would like to do but is forbidden, be able to bring forward Holocaust survivors to prove that Irving is wrong.
In a better movie, the legal team's visit to Auschwitz would pack the emotional punch the filmmakers clearly intended and reinforce our sense that Lipstadt is justified in her righteous anger. Yet it falls flat. That's too bad, because having visited a concentration camp myself (Sachenhausen) I know what a deeply sobering impact such a place can have.
What does work is the film's moral core. There's never any question that Lipstadt is right and Irving wrong, that the Holocaust happened and that denying it is the worst kind of canard. The film makes a convincing, one might even say passionate, ethical case for the use of reason and strategy: winning over evil is far more important than expressing our righteous anger, blasting the truth out or indulging our outrage that a pernicious lie is being treated seriously in a court of law. What matters is winning, not for winning's sake or ego gratification, but so that the lie is smashed, such that that next time it rears up it becomes all the more difficult to tell the lie with any credibility.
The movie shows that to win--to crush the lie of David Irving--it's important to marshall facts, to do hard work and careful research, to keep our emotions, no matter how justified, in check and under control. It is heartening to see in England, at least in this case, a legal system that works, where truth wins and competence matters--and the film shows how important that is.
|Timothy Spall as David Irving. He's shot as a flaccid creep.|
The focus on fact seems important to emphasize because we live in a world awash in emotionalism, so much so that one of our Presidential candidates seems to have no control over his twitching, twittering fingers, a world where personality and "identity" shout down sober reality. As Christoper Hedges put in Truthdig ("American Irrationalism," Nov. 1, 2016):
"Political, intellectual and cultural discourse has been replaced with spectacle. Emotionalism and sensationalism are prized over truth."
Agreed. While the alt-right or the Neo-Nazis might hope to reduce the holocaust's truth to whatever side can act more aggrieved, be more snide or derisive, or shout louder, to win because their "narrative" gains "traction" in cyberspace, in fact, the movie says, documenting the truth is how we defeat evil.
That may be an old-fashioned worldview, but it also the foundation of scholarship--that the careful compilation of verifiable facts matters--and truth is the foundation of democracy. It's also the foundation of the good life: we cannot prosper if we rush into wars or economic policies that are based on blatant fantasies.
The movie also does a good job of exposing Irving for the mocking racist, misogynist and anti-Semite he is. I was startled at his similarities to Trump in what were restagings of speeches he gave. He was also remarkably like Trump in his inability to live in reality: he immediately "spun" his resounding defeat in court as a victory. Well, why not, if facts don't count?
While I value emotion, I long for a society in which its importance is subordinated to truth. Denial, though a flawed film, provides a decent template for how we can achieve that.