Film Flashbacks and The Unreliability of Eyewitness Testimony

        Eyewitness testimony is incredibly unreliable. All we have to do is look at the statistics of how many people are falsely imprisoned each year because of it. Movies prove this by using flashbacks. Two such movies are Akira Kurosawa's Rashômon (1950) and Edward Zwick's 1996 film Courage Under Fire.

        One of the most famous films to use flashbacks is Rashômon . This film shows how three different people (and one ghost) experienced the same event. Though all versions involved a samurai named Takehiro (Masayuki Mori), his wife, Masako (Machiko Kyô), and a famous thief, Tajômaru (Toshirô Mifune), each story is drastically different. In each, a different person kills the samurai. In the version told by Tajômaru, he happens upon the samurai and his wife, whom Tajômaru lusts after. He tricks Takehiro into going with him to view some items for sale, and challenges him to a fight. In Tajômaru's story, it is he who kills the samurai. Masako claims differently. She says that, after being raped by Tajômaru, her husband stares at her with contempt, and she kills him. Takehiro, through a medium, claims that Masako was a willing participant and kills himself out of shame. The woodcutter's version, seemingly the most truthful, says that Takehiro was killed by a sword.

        The differing stories show how no absolute truth can be reached through eyewitness testimony. Everyone views events in a different way, and has his or her own motivations for telling it a certain way.

        A more recent movie that uses flashbacks to tell the story is Courage Under Fire. Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) tries to ascertain whether or not Gulf War helicopter pilot Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) deserves to win the Medal of Honor. Serling interviews the men that went down in the helicopter with Walden, and each tells a different story. One man, Staff Sergeant John Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) tries to make Walden look incompetent and undeserving because he had had a problem with her. As in Rashômon, the last story, told by Specialist Ilario (Matt Damon), which paints Walden as a hero, is considered to be more truthful by the powers that be. However, both Courage Under Fire and Rashômon prove that eyewitness testimony is not a reliable way to determine what really happened.

Brittiany Adams

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