This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!
It feels inappropriate to be moved by a film about propaganda during an era of “alternative facts.” Yet I found my soul soothed by Their Finest, which follows scriptwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) as she leads a British government propaganda film during World War II. Catrin is hired to write the “slop,” or women’s dialogue, but she soon realizes writing scripts has real political power.
After the Battle of Dunkirk, newspaper headlines declare that two British sisters, Rose and Lily, took their father’s boat and rescued dozens of allied soldiers. When Catrin is sent to investigate, she discovers that the sisters’ boat broke down before they ever reached France. But Catrin decides to tell their story—with some changes. In this moment, the film alters the nature of propaganda from oppressive to subversive, and explores whether changing facts and blurring truths might ever have positive political power.
Their Finest becomes the story of a cast, crew, and government seeking to inspire their allies. Across the Channel, the Third Reich’s troops wreak havoc on Europe, motivated by falsehoods designed to spread fear. While the Axis made propaganda to justify exclusion, Catrin and her colleagues inspire women to fight back. When the British government comes to this realization, they ask Catrin’s team to add an American character to the film, because American women might then rally their government to join the second World War.
But recognizing women’s political power means asking whether that power comes from their relationships with men. This dynamic shows up in the relationships between the scriptwriters. Catrin sets out to tell Rose and Lily’s stories, but each new requirement from the British government diminishes their significance: To make the story attractive, the scriptwriters add a male love interest; to make the film “realistic,” the writers play up the role of a fictional uncle; and to make the movie politically meaningful, the British government casts an American fighter pilot as a second love interest. Rose and Lily are peripheral characters until a tragedy, and a plot hole, allows Rose to fix the boat’s propeller.
How do we reconcile cheering for Catrin while booing at Trump? They’re both masters of propaganda, but in different ways: Only one tells stories to exclude. While modern propaganda seeks to keep systems of oppression, Catrin hopes to break down these structures. Their Finest is ultimately a film about whether we listen to propagandists feeding us “alternative facts” or to storytellers asking us to consider marginalized truths.