Part Two: The Documentary Contract

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Seek Truth.jpg

Fig. 1.

Keith Beattie in his book, Documentary Screens: Non-Fiction Film and Television, describes a very important relationship that documentary producers have with their audiences. He calls it "the documentary contract;" it is, in its simplest form, an unspoken, unwritten agreement that documentary producers will represent the world accurately and truthfully so that the audience might not be misled or misinformed (Beattie 11). Beattie is quick to clarify that this does not mean a viewer should accept everything in a documentary as a truth claim, in fact he says, "The generalized truth claim of documentary representation may encompass a number of individual truth claims" (Beattie 10). The generalized truth claim that the film portrays should be one that is founded in facts of the real world.


When a documentary is on a historical figure, however, it becomes hard to distinguish sometimes what is truth and what is opinion. Disagreements about the truth of this documentary necessarily arise. We can see this very clearly by simply comparing how another historian deals with a bit of heated content.


John Adams.gifWalter Isaacson.jpg
Fig. 2. John Adams                                                                       Fig. 3. Walter Isaacson

The third portion of the film spends a great deal of time devoted to Franklin's political work in France. In a section about John Adams coming over to France in order to help Franklin with the diplomacy, the agenda of the film really begins to ring out. The film portrays Adams as a bumbling idiot, unaware of the French manner of accomplishing business, and certainly a fool in comparison to Franklin. The historians portrayed in this section of the film actually laugh at the idea of Congress thinking that Adams could possibly be equipped with the social skills for this tricky task. Walter Isaacson has been occasionally been shown in the film up until this point, but in this section he is completely cut out. It only takes one look at Isaacson's chapter on this relationship to understand why the film did not include him. Isaacson says:

Some have found the relationship baffling: Did Adams resent or respect Franklin? Did Franklin find Adams maddening or solid? Did they like or dislike each other? The answer, which is not all that baffling because it is often true of the relationship between two great and strong people, is that they felt all of these conflicting emotions about each other, and more. (Isaacson 350-351)

Isaacson is not only lenient on the relationship between Adams and Franklin at this time, but he borders on saying that the two got along quite well. Quite the opposite from the documentary, this disjunction between Isaacson's point of view and that of the film is punctuated when both mediums utilize the same quote. Isaacson writes:

After a few years, Franklin would tire of Adams and declare that he was "sometimes, and in some thing, absolutely out of his senses." But for the time being, he found Adams tolerable, at times even admirable. And he was happy to make him part of his social set, despite Adams's minimal enthusiasm for such frivolities. (Isaacson 353)

Observe this section of the film below. Note the tone in the Franklin actor's voice. His facial expressions and way in which he delivers this quote carry an entirely different feeling than the kind words of Isaacson.

Adam's Senses Quote.m4v (Benjamin Franklin)

In this portrayal of Franklin, he is clearly not just "tired" of Adams, as Isaacson suggests, rather he is outraged at Adams's stupidity, and clearly frustrated that Adams is ruining Franklin's years of diplomacy in France.


It might be too strong of a point to say that this film violates the documentary contract, or to also put that judgment on Isaacson in his book. However, it is important to keep the different mediums in mind. The film has the opportunity to introduce tone and facial expression into the delivery of the quotes. Often, seeing an actor recite a quote can incite stronger feelings than the written word can. Hovde and Meyer, the directors of the film, also have the freedom to interpret Franklin's tone as they wish. The actor too even has some poetic license in his delivery of the quotes.

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Beattie's claim does not mean to say that audiences will accept and believe everything they watch, though. He is careful to qualify this contract and allow for viewer discretion. He says, "Studies of reception point to the fact that viewers interpret or decode the documentary text in complex and sophisticated ways and frequently balance and validate the information and interpretations provided in a documentary against their own experiences and sources of information" (Beattie 12). The balancing of information of which he speaks is exactly what I am attempting to do in this blog. Through understanding how documentaries are produced and what they can potentially claim about a historical figure, audiences can more accurately validate and process the information they are given.

Works Cited:

Beattie, Keith. Documentary Screens: Non-Fiction Film and Television. New York: Palgrave        MacMillan, 2004. Print.

Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2003. Print.

Fig. 4: Microsoft Word Clip Art

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