I'll need examples to illustrate my point, so I'll use two somewhat recent reviews by Anthony Lane: this review of Inside Man (The New Yorker, 20 March 2006) and this review of American Dreamz (The New Yorker, 17 April 2006). He's a critic of great stature so I'm sure that neither his feelings nor his reputation will be hurt by anything I say here, and should it come to fisticuffs I'm pretty confident that I can take him.
Anyway, in both of these reviews Mr. Lane makes statements based on incorrect details from the film under consideration. About Inside Man he says:
The screenplay, a first-time effort by Russell Gewirtz, displays a double gift: it is clever enough to clutch our attention, but also dumb enough, with large logical holes punched through it at regular intervals, to make the audience feel equally clever for having spotted the mistakes. These include: (1) Voice recognition. Russell may be clad in shades and a white balaclava, but he converses with Frazier in person, and, given that Clive Owen’s American accent keeps slipping like an old sock, it should not be hard to pick him out of a lineup.
And about American Dreamz he says:
Among the other contenders are an Orthodox cantor turned rapper, of whom we see not nearly enough, and a sweet, stumblebum Arab (the film is too chicken to specify his country of origin) by the name of Omer (Sam Golzari), who just happens to have been trained, somewhat reluctantly, as a terrorist.
I've noted these errors before, and corrected them: Dalton Russell never ends up in a police lineup (he's still hidden in the bank when Frazier is interviewing the hostages), and we are told that Omer is from Baghdad (which, granted, isn't his country of origin, but come now). But it isn't the errors per se that bother me.
Film critics see a lot of films, and errors are unavoidable. Plot details are virtually impossible to fact-check (if it's an advance screening no one has seen the film yet!) and there's nothing wrong with garbling a name or distorting some specifics of the story. Roger Ebert, for one, is prone to small mistakes of this sort, but his criticism is rarely any the worse for it.
What I object to are the significant critical judgments Lane issues based on these errors. His claim that Inside Man is "dumb [...] with large logical holes punched through it at regular intervals" is invalidated by the faulty evidence that he supplies to support it. Likewise his claim that American Dreamz is "cowardly."
And this, I propose, is the cardinal sin of film criticism. To put it in the form of a commandment: Thou shalt not make specific critiques based on erroneous information about the film in question.
First, if there's really a problem with the film significant enough to warrant mention in a review, it's probably unnecessary to use an example that's less than 100% certain. If, for instance, Inside Man has logical holes punched through it at "regular intervals," than Mr. Lane could have chosen an example that he could verify.
If there's any doubt about the veracity of the complaint it should be left out of the review. If the makers of American Dreamz are genuinely cowardly, afraid of hurting their box office, or of invoking the wrath of the Bush administration by mentioning the Iraq war in a less than flattering context (a fairly serious charge), then examples should abound of this cowardice. But if not, if this is simply one isolated "cowardly" act, does it really merit a mention at all?
It is easy, perhaps necessary, for a film critic to forget that every film is a human endeavor, one that represents a substantial investment of time and money for all involved (and there are invariably many involved). Critics traffic in opinions, and they are not beholden to anyone in this regard. But we do owe it to the filmmakers, to our readers, and to ourselves to make sure that our review is reconcilable with the film we're reviewing.
Because film is such a human endeavor it engenders strong emotions. Negative comments about a film often invoke hurt or angry responses, there's nothing to be done for this. As long as the critic is true to him- or herself and true to the film, this isn't even undesirable. Disagreement can lead to discussion, which is beneficial for all of the parties involved.
But when we make criticisms based on incorrect information we do a great disservice to ourselves and our readers. We inflame passions, hurt feelings for no productive reason. We put ourselves in a rhetorically indefensible position, and we undermine our credibility.
It is, in short, a bad move. The one bad move to be avoided at all costs. The cardinal sin of film criticism.