When the opening credits of a Hollywood blockbuster proclaim "based on a true story," many people, particularly kids, may assume they're about to be educated. But now Bob Niemi's History in the Media: Film and Television is here to set them straight. The St. Michael's College associate English professor, who also teaches cinema on the Colchester campus, envisions his 501-page book as "an intervention" for youngsters whose views are shaped by entertainment rather than bona fide literary sources.
The Barre resident thoroughly researched his subject -- the accuracy of information in movies and certain TV programs -- over the four years it took to write the tome published in May by ABC-CLIO. "I stuck with real periods and events, even those that are highly fictionalized," says Niemi, 51. "Historical films always have distortions, additions and subtractions that change the story."
In order to figure out the veracity of films, he first had to discern the actual truth. "That was easy in terms of dates, names and places," Niemi points out. "But not when it comes to nuances of interpretation. Artistic license is a thorny issue. I often see that ideological choices have been made."
For example, critics called Patton (1970) "a perfectly balanced" profile of the mid-20th-century general, who is depicted as a somewhat flawed but heroic figure. "I say that's crap," Niemi notes. "The film left out the well-documented fact that he was a virulent anti-Semite. Is that important? Yes!"
In the same vein, he lambastes mainstream fare about flyboys Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes -- respectively, Billy Wilder's The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004). The former biopic is "a docudrama that glorifies him and doesn't deal with his fascist tendencies," Niemi says, adding that the latter film fails to examine "the character's shady dealings with the dark underbelly of the military-industrial complex. Why romanticize this guy?"
History in the Media analyzes hundreds of films in a surprising array of categories. "I needed to stake out a new angle," Niemi recalls. "My plan was to go beyond what is normally considered history by looking into popular culture."
Accordingly, he explores music (The Last Waltz and Ray, for example), sports (Chariots of Fire, Hoosiers) and that mainstay of tabloid journalism, crime (Goodfellas, Dog Day Afternoon).
Although Westerns are one of this nation's most influential genres, apart from a few old cowboy shoot-'em-ups about Davy Crockett or the Alamo, they barely qualify for Niemi's book. "It's 95 percent mythmaking," he contends.
Niemi cautions that what appears on the big or little screen should never be taken on faith. "Films reduce complicated experiences down to relatively simple melodramas, with three acts and a clear-cut protagonist," he suggests. "So the requisite cinematic storytelling does not mesh that well with historical realities." This issue is important "because every work of art has some sort of implicit stance on our world. My premise is that these representations do have serious social consequences."
American readers may not understand one sentence -- Ei ole koiraa karvoihin katsominen -- on History in the Media's dedication page, but the five words would be easily understood in Niemi's Scandinavian ancestral homeland. "It's a Finnish folk saying: 'You can't tell a dog by its hair,' he says. "Or a movie by its hype, for that matter."
Neither should Niemi's book necessarily be judged by its cover: a photo of Aviator star Leonardo DiCaprio.
Some Canadian doings: -- On Tuesday night, The Descendant will unspool at Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival. Quebec director Philippe Spurrell, who was interviewed for this column a while back, shot the supernatural thriller -- in English -- just over the Vermont border. His plot focuses on a young man who finds the grandparents he never knew living in a very bizarre small town. Check out www.fantasiafest.com  for details.
-- The 30th annual Montreal World Film Festival, from August 24 to September 4, will pay tribute to Bruno Ganz. You're probably asking, "Bruno who?" I'm saying, "Be still, my heart." The soulful Swiss actor, now 65, has performed in such art-house hits as Gillian Armstrong's The Last Days of Chez Nous. But he's no doubt more renowned for his wise-angel role in Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders.
Ganz also portrays a chillingly banal Adolph Hitler in The Downfall (2004), one of four pictures at the event that feature this thinking woman's hunk. Visit http://www.ffm-montreal.org  for more info.