This film is based on the true story of Deborah Lipstadt, a historian who wrote a book attacking and deconstructing Holocaust denial. When her book came out, David Irving, a British man posing as a historian known for his denial of the Holocaust, decided to press charges against her for libel. The case was tried in Britain. Lipstadt was an American and had to adjust to the unusual justice system of the United Kingdom, where, in libel cases, the party accused of libel bears the burden of proof. In America, of course, it would be the accuser who bore the burden of proof that they really are the victims of libel. Lipstadt meets with her British legal team and they consider their various options. One of them was to claim that the defamation with which they were charged is not as damaging as Irving claimed it was. This was not a viable option, because Lipstadt had used harsh language in her book to attack Irving, calling him a Hitler sympathizer who, out of sheer anti-Semitism, had falsified the historical record. Lipstadt and her legal team decide to defend themselves by arguing that the allegedly false and slanderous claims in Lipstadt’s book were actually true.
In a way, then, a historical matter was tried in court, since whether or not Lipstadt’s claims were true depended in part on to what extent Irving’s attempt at history deviated from the historical record. Throughout the trial, Lipstadt has to struggle with some ethical dilemmas. One is whether survivors should be allowed to offer testimony in trial. The legal team strongly rejects this idea, since they do not want to expose survivors to someone like Irving, who, though a deeply misguided historian, is capable of forceful argument and might traumatize someone who had endured the Holocaust. Another dilemma is the issue of free speech. Some argue that people like Irving need to be allowed to air their views, as odious as they may be. Lipstadt, as she is portrayed in the movie, defends free speech but claims that certain ideas should not be dignified with discussion. Ideas like Elvis is still alive, or that the Holocaust did not happen, are not even worth talking about.
This movie was good, but I think the subject matter is so rich and could easily have given rise to more interesting treatment. I want to especially praise the performance of Timothy Spall, who played David Irving. Irving managed to exude an impression of being unhinged, deeply obtuse, and unbelievably and incorrigibly self-righteous. Irving is one of those people who has an agenda and is committed to that agenda regardless of obstacles they may face. After the trial, Irving, as portrayed by Spall, describes how victorious he was, even though the judge delivered a verdict favorable to Lipstadt. Irving, in fact, is in a way very clever, as his main goal is to generate publicity, so even if he loses the libel case, he will have spent a considerable amount of time in the public eye, bringing his views closer and closer to the mainstream. The more publicity he gets, the more people think that Holocaust denial is not some totally untenable beliefs like Elvis is alive but just an unpopular but viable alternative reading.