I liked Denial, but frankly not as much as I anticipated.
Denial is the story of the libel trial in England over historian Deborah Lipstadt’s disparaging remarks about Holocaust denier (or “revisionist,” to use his preferred term) David Irving in her book Denying the Holocaust. He claimed that she had damaged his reputation and his ability to publish his work and earn money from it.
Irving is portrayed by Timothy Spall, whom I had only seen in one movie previously—Pierrepont: The Last Hangman—a terrific actor with a wonderfully interesting face.
We first see Irving confront Lipstadt at a talk she is giving to students. From what I’ve read of the incident, the depiction in the movie is only minimally fictionalized. Soon comes word that he is suing her. Her first inclination is not to engage with him—that’s her rule in general: to refuse to debate denialists, and in fact most people he had sued to that point, which were many, had indeed settled out of court—but ultimately she, and her publisher, decide to stand up to him.
She engages a crack legal team in England. They initially offer to take the case for free, as a public service to defeat the odious Mr. Irving, but it becomes such a huge deal (the trial lasted for months, and all the pretrial research took considerably longer) that they prevail upon her to help by raising whatever money she can for them from interested parties. The film takes us through the end of the trial, as well as a small amount of the aftermath.
Though much of the film takes place during the time of the trial, only a fraction of that depicts the trial itself. The rest depicts such things as Lipstadt and the lawyers bickering outside of the courtroom. And, as mentioned, the movie also includes material from before and after the trial.
The upshot is that really there’s only a modest amount of the trial itself. I found that disappointing. Because it’s in the courtroom that the film comes alive. That’s the part that really held my interest.
Which is not to say that none of the other material has value. For example, the scene where Lipstadt and part of her legal team visit Auschwitz is an emotionally powerful one that is certainly deserving of inclusion.
But the film devotes as much time to the matter of Lipstadt clashing with the attorneys over who is calling the shots for their side as it does to the trial itself. That’s mildly interesting stuff—they are the professionals who know how to maximize the chances of winning the case and so want to make all the decisions; winning is only part of her motivation, she’s the kind of person whose ego doesn’t allow her to step back and let others speak for her, and she wants the defense conducted in a way that honors Holocaust victims, for instance by calling on some of the survivors to testify—but that could have been cut down.
Actually a lot of the material that focused the film more on her and her personal struggle with this issue could have been eliminated. Again, it’s not that I wasn’t interested at all in that, but every minute devoted to the Deborah Lipstadt biopic is another minute not spent on the trial.
As I say, the trial lasted for months, so of course they can’t present all of it in a movie. But were the film edited differently they certainly could have presented considerably more of the highlights, and provided more of a sense of the chronology of the trial and how each side built their case. Instead there are just some brief snippets to kind of give a feel for the trial and for some of the issues raised therein. That’s all good stuff—showing the interplay of the various parties, the grandstanding of Irving, etc.—but I wanted more of it.
I thought about this a considerable amount after seeing this movie. I feel like the filmmakers brought in a lot of other material out of a concern that a movie focused too heavily on the trial just wouldn’t be all that dramatically compelling, so they wanted to explore the conflicts within Lipstadt and between Lipstadt and her attorneys and such. But if so I suspect they’re mistaken.
I’m not saying I would have necessarily preferred a documentary about the trial, but I wonder if the best approach wouldn’t have been more a docudrama.
Thinking about the depiction of a (nonfiction) court case in a movie brought to my mind the wonderful HBO film Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 from 1987, which was a docudrama that used the transcripts of the Chicago 8 trial almost word for word. That courtroom film is riveting, educational, thought provoking, and emotionally powerful. I suspect that a similar approach in Denial could have been as well.
I also found Denial clumsy on occasion in the way it conveyed information to the audience by having the characters express it in situations where it’s unlikely they said what they’re depicted as saying. This is a common device used in movies to avoid having to have a narrator or captions or whatever—just work the information into the dialogue. But sometimes it’s done smoothly and sometimes, as here, it’s not. (My favorite example of all time of the latter is from an episode of Speed Racer when there is a change of scene and Sparky says to Speed, “Here we are in the Alps, Speed!”)
The trial—and the film as a whole—does raise plenty of interesting questions.
One is whether Lipstadt is right that “You can debate opinions, but you can’t debate facts.” She offers this as her defense of why she doesn’t believe in engaging with Holocaust deniers. (You’ll also sometimes hear the similar claim “You’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.”)
I’d say I agree more than disagree with what I think people are getting at when they say things like this. On the other hand—and to really go into this I’d have to do a whole song and dance about epistemology, as this was kind of a pet peeve of mine when I used to teach philosophy—I think it assumes an unjustifiably black-and-white contrast between “opinions” and “facts.”
I think it’s more accurate to think of claims as having some degree of likelihood of truth relative to the available evidence rather than as falling into one of two distinct categories of “opinion” or “fact.” Beliefs aren’t factual in some absolute sense or “just” opinions; they are justified to varying degrees by the evidence.
In principle everything should be open to question, but I can understand a person’s decision to not spend time—of which we each have but a finite amount—on matters that approach 100% or 0% likelihood of truth, where the evidence is largely open to the public and widely known, and where there is a total or near-total consensus amongst all people in a position to have considered that evidence and come to a conclusion, especially where those questioning the consensus have consistently manifested a lack of intellectual honesty.
Such dissenters would still have the right to express their views (at least as a civil libertarian I would hope so). In an ideal world where we did indeed have an infinite amount of time for everyone to listen to and engage with everyone, I would hope that anyone challenged by them would respond substantively and justify why they do or don’t agree with them rather than ignore them or dismiss them with an ad hominem. And even in the real world, where most people most of the time are justified in ignoring them, I’m glad there is some small number of experts—representatives of the consensus position—who do respond substantively to them so that Lipstadt and others who prefer not to don’t have to.
Then there is the matter of whether it is fair to look through everything Irving ever wrote or said (and not just in published works; they even went through all his diaries), and to highlight every error, every instance of bias, etc. Some historians admitted being made quite uncomfortable by the defense’s approach in the trial, wondering if any of them would have a job or a reputation intact if someone went through everything they ever wrote or said with a fine-tooth comb like that in order to find anything problematic.
It’s a legitimate concern, because I agree that no one is such a perfect, impartial scholar that they could come through such scrutiny unscathed. But there’s something to be said for this being a special case. For one thing, it’s Irving himself who brought the suit. No one was suing Irving on the grounds of his having committed errors or deceptions; he sued Lipstadt, and as part of her defense her attorneys are seeking to establish that whatever criticisms she made of him are largely accurate.
But also, as one of her attorneys points out to the judge, if Irving just made occasional honest mistakes, as all of us fallible beings do, you’d think he’d err randomly, not all on one side. But if you look closely at his most dubious claims, pretty much every one of them tends to put Hitler and the Nazis in a better light.
A lot of this is still kind of tricky, though. In the end, I don’t believe that we should get all relativist about it and say that those who contend that the Holocaust happened roughly as the overwhelming consensus of historians say it did and Holocaust deniers are both just expressing “opinions” and so are somehow equal, nor that the issue should have to be debated over and over and over and over and over whenever anyone anywhere is challenged by someone who claims not to accept the consensus. But on the other hand, I don’t think there should be sacrosanct dogma on any subject that people are not allowed to doubt or disagree with. I prefer “You’re wrong” (and “You’re wrong and here’s why you’re wrong…” is even better, though in most circumstances not obligatory) to “You’re not allowed to say that.”
Even if Denial didn’t seem to me to be as good as it could have been, I still think it is a worthwhile film that deserves at least a modest recommendation.