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The Whole Truth: How “True” Are “True Stories”?

Something that has always made me wonder is how close to reality film and television are or are not. Sometimes this is expressed in abstract terms – for example whether Baltimore is really as bad as it is made out to be in The Wire. However, it’s much more direct when one looks at what claims to be a true story. Reality isn’t film. Things don’t always break down to key “moments”. Events play out over the long term, and sometimes subtly. There isn’t always a bad guy or an antagonist. There certainly always isn’t a happy ending. So naturally amendments need to be made, because these events need to be translated to drama. But where is the line? How far can you stretch the truth until it breaks?

Staying true to yourself...

There have been several controversies of late. The Special Relationship, one of my most anticipated films of the year, was accused by Alister Campbell of being less than faithful to original events, in both mood and content:

The film gets nowhere near the truth about the TB/Clinton relationship and the final scenes expose the film-makers’ real agenda – to have the Clinton character warning TB in lurid terms not to get too close to Bush. Iraq isn’t mentioned, but it is clearly what Clinton’s comments are designed to put in mind.

And on a slightly larger scale, even more factual inaccuracies have been reported with David Fincher’s upcoming The Social Network, which I am also anticipating. Anyway, reportedly the film takes certain liberties with events:

The film is also sprinkled with scenes of extravagant parties, and it is not clear how authentic they are. As of this week, Mr. Rudin said, one remaining question was to what extent the finished film would include a scene that depicted Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder who was heavily involved with Facebook’s early history, delivering his dialogue while a pair of teenage girls offer partygoers lines of cocaine from bared breasts.

Matthew Hiltzik, a spokesman for Mr. Parker, declined to comment. But a person who was involved with research for the film, and spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid conflict with the producers, said that sequence was one of several that were mostly made up.

Reportedly the writers of the film have a very clear reason for making such things up. They don’t want to have to pay for the “life rights” of those involved:

“Social” creators were allowed to take liberties with the truth of Facebook’s story without having to buy life rights to the people depicted because much of the story they told is based on depositions given by those depicted. Other source material includes the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich and interviews with Eduardo Saverin, a co-founder of Facebook who went on to sue Zuckerberg.

That said, these are still real people that the movie is based around. And – while most movie-goers will take “based on a true story” with a grain of salt – there’s still a large portion of people who will expect that the movie is offering something at least close to reality.

What's the story?

How do you delineate between fiction and reality? At what point do these creations stop being based on real life characters and start taking on a life as fictional characters of their own. Michael Sheen remarked that he treats his version of Tony Blair as a character in his own right, rather than an imitation of a living person:

Whenever I talk about him, I’m talking about the character, rather than the actual person, because I don’t have any idea about the real person. Ultimately it’s supposition. I don’t know for definite. I don’t know Tony Blair … but I know this character that I play. How much similarity it bears to the actual Tony Blair, I’ve no idea. And I don’t really care.

It’s an interesting distinction to make, between the “real” and “unreal” Tony Blair. And you could make the argument that these sorts of portrayals are intended to add depth to public personas – to make them more organic than they can seem as figureheads used in discussions.

And the simple fact is that the movie’s job is to entertain. You can make arguments about enlightening or educating on top of that, but those are (at best) secondary concerns, primarily intended for documentaries rather than feature films. As David Fincher himself has summed up:

Question: How do you find a balance between honoring the true story and taking dramatic liberty with some of the events to create a compelling narrative, especially considering that little time has passed and the people still exist today?

Fincher: Well, I think you try to have a sense of who these people are to their world and to the world of the story, and you try to walk a line. I wouldn’t have made the film if I didn’t have great respect and admiration for the accomplishments of both Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Parker, and if I didn’t feel for both the Winklevoss and Savarin camps. I don’t know who said what to whom or when — for sure… But I’ve only ever been interested in arguments where everyone is convinced they’re right.

That said, it isn’t always a fair transition. It can also betray some… unfortunate underpinnings of the Hollywood studio system. Take, for example, the casting of 21. In reality, it was the story of a bunch of Asian Americans. In the film, the leading roles went to white actors. The obvious implication is that audiences aren’t ready for predominantly non-white casts. You could make the same sort of suggestions about the various portrayals of Jesus Christ as caucasian and (admittedly more ridiculously) John Wayne as Genghis Khan.

Also, surprisingly, based on a true story...

However, there’s something else that disturbs me, apart from the fact that it betrays a lack of respect for the audience. So far we’ve discussed the protagonists of these films. Sure, they have legitimate complaints about the shadows that appear on these characters, but the films are at least dedicated to making them seem like well-rounded characters (whether they succeed is an argument for another time). What about the bad guys in these films?

Perhaps the most famous example is the nasty job that Amadeus did on his “rival” composer Salieri, who was made out to be something of a hack with a chip on his shoulder who may have wished his adversary dead. This stretches the truth more than a bit:

Though Salieri never achieved historical greatness, he was rightfully a highly respected and successful composer whose ability to provide operas for the court and to administer its musical establishment cannot be questioned. In contrast, Salieri’s music performed in Amadeus is simpleminded and unworthy of his true abilities. There is no question that Mozart’s improvisational and performance skills were exceptional; Salieri’s remain unknown. However, by showing Salieri as a barely competent musician, the disparity of musical talent is deepened, thereby furthering Shaffer’s dramatic plan. Salieri’s music may never have achieved immortality, but it was always correct, skillful, and appropriate.

Of course, we’re talking about a long-dead composer, so it’s arguable whether of not it matters in the grand scheme of things. What about living people who end up playing villains?

In Rudy, head coach Dan Devine comes across as something of a bad guy, an unreasonably authority figure that Rudy and his team mates must stand up to in order to allow the title character his fair shot at playing on the pitch. However, in real life, the character was nothing but supportive of Rudy:

In Reel Life: The night before the final game, Steele leads the players as they walk, single file, into new Head Coach Dan Devine’s office, and place their jerseys on his desk, saying they want Rudy to suit up.

In Real Life: According to the Houston Chronicle, Devine was furious about the scene. “The jersey scene is unforgivable. It’s a lie and untrue. coming on the heels of ‘Under the Tarnished Dome’ (a book critical of the university’s football program). I don’t think it’s a very good thing for Notre Dame.”

And Ruettiger knew he would dress for the final home game. “Dan made the announcement that I’d be playing at practice and everybody cheered,” he told the New York Times. Linebackers coach George Kelly added, “There’s no question he was on the dress list. It was posted on Thursday.”

I don’t know. I know that changes need to made to every real live event in order to make it a movie. After all, a great story won’t necessarily make a great movie without a strong storyteller behind it. The flipside is that sometimes the real figures involved get shortchanged.

That’s why it’s always wise (and, to geeks like me, a bit fun) to check out the truth behind a given story.

12 Responses

  1. The Amadeus one is what pissed me off the most. Outright villainising real people is implying that real life needs a bad guy, and therefore, we should expect one.

    • Yep. It’s also a way of cheapening real people. I wonder how his legacy holds up now that he’s “the bad guy from Amadeus”?

  2. Unfortunately, you have to sex things up a bit to keep a film compelling. The key when dealing with real events is to pick scenes that capture the feel of what the characters were going thru. Movies will never be accurate. I’m surprised about the Rudy one. That is a bit of a slap in the face but that scene builds the emotion of the final scene which I still have to fight not to cry thru! 🙂

  3. Ah I didn’t know that about the ending of Rudy, certainly it made for a more dramatic and memorable ending. It’s pretty obvious that The Social Network took some liberties even from the trailer. I heard that Jesse Eisenberg never actually talked to the creator of Facebook and only “studied” them.

  4. Frankly, I didn’t want a true story of Zuckerburg because we would get his pre-approved sanitized version of who he thinks he is. Now whose to say which truth is real?

    • You have a point – it’s wrong to assume a movie is “truer” because it features the person in question as a consultant or producer. Look at Rudy!

  5. If you want completely accurate history, go watch a documentary. Movies have to tell a story, and because of that, certain things need to be added and subtracted to allow that.

    I don’t have problems with historical accuracy if stays faithful to the events. Elliot Ness and Al Capone never met in real life but I don’t think The Untouchables gives viewers an incorrect picture of the animosity between them. Whereas Cinderella Man makes Max Behr a completely unrepentant villain whereas he actually felt incredibly guilty over killing a man in the ring (by accident) and spent the rest of his life trying to make it up to the victim’s family. THAT is crossing the line in terms of a movie telling a “true story”.

    • Cinderella Man is an example I probably should have included in the piece itself – yep, the guy spent his later years trying to give a little bit of money to the family to help them keep going. Given he was a Depression Era boxer, it isn’t like he had the funds to throw around.

  6. I don’t think the villifying of Salieri in Amadeus is unjustified (this goes all the way back to the stage play its based on). Sure, Salieri had a “friendly rivalry” with Mozart, but a movie about Mozart having a friendly rivalry with someone he respects and admires, then slowly drinking himself to death would have been about as entertaining as home movies of me interacting with my father.

    • I think there’s an audience out there.

      No, I get your point. It’s just interesting how that film might have a greater impact on Salieri’s legacy than the music he composed.

  7. I’ve been studying historical films recently for a class and one of the best articles ever written about them makes the point that film as a medium makes artistic changes necessary. So if one particular conversation never happened, it’s not a problem. The important thing is that the broad themes of the historical event are true.

    True stories give a specific “reading” of history. At the end of the day, Rudy WAS a guy who overcame adversity to play for the Notre Dame Football team. I think we can forgive the movie for taking liberties with how it portrays a relatively minor character in the movie.

    On the other hand, Salieri was nothing like how he was portrayed in the film, and his relationship with Mozart was not even close to being that vicious.

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