January 23, 2011

Playing With the Truth: Film in 2010

Based on a true story.

Inspired by actual events. 

I'm not sure if it was an actual trend in 2010 or just a common trait of the few movies that I saw, but phrases like those above seemed to appear on screen in quite a lot of films, including 127 Hours, Conviction, Howl, Carlos, North Face, and even more that I didn't see, such as Made in Dagenham, Casino Jack, Eat Pray Love, I Love You Philip Morris, Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Public Enemy #1, and Nowhere Boy, to name only a few (and to say nothing of the tricky-truthy documentaries like I'm Still Here, Catfish, and Exit Through the Gift Shop).

Are there this many films based on true events every year and I only noticed it in 2010, or is this a newly developing trend? Either possibility would surprise me. If this is common every year, why have I not picked up on it so acutely, particularly considering I usually see twice as many movies as I did in 2010, and that I have a running series about movies based on real life? On the other hand, if this is a newly developing trend - why?

I'm almost positive it's the former, that this is not a new thing at all, but in any case it doesn't matter. I'm always more interested in how these films depict the truth they are meant to represent and, in doing so, how they shape our understanding and perspective on past events. For example, when I ask you to imagine the sinking of the Titanic, what images come to your mind? What about Roman gladiator fighting in the Colosseum? What do you picture when you think of John Smith and Pocahontas, or the Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco, or the fate of United Flight 93, or the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day?

You see where I'm going with this: for many people, films based on true events serve as the primary influence on the subconscious in remembering or imagining those events. If you've seen those movies - Titanic, Gladiator, The New World, Zodiac, United 93, Saving Private Ryan - you bring their images to mind without even realizing it, particularly when a.) the images are astonishingly rendered (Titanic), and b.) there are few other film adaptations, documentaries, or other visual aids to provide alternative images in your mind (United 93). In essence, perception becomes reality; what we see becomes what actually happened, even if it didn't actually happen.

But does it matter when those images and those memories produce a reality that didn't actually exist? Where does the truth end and the dramatization begin, and is the truth ever interesting enough to stand on its own, free of embellishment? I'm sure it's a question as old as film itself - as art itself, really - but I'd like to consider it in the context of five films I saw in the last few months of 2010: The Social Network, The Fighter, Fair Game, The King's Speech, and All Good Things.

The Social Network: David Fincher's enthralling film is a meaty one to consider, not least because its characters are all telling conflicting "truths" concerning the same events. Almost by default, then, the film cannot be portraying an accurate history, simply because some or all of the characters have to be lying about Facebook's true origins. 

The Social Network has been analyzed to death for the last three months and I don't want to tread on familiar ground. However, along with All Good Things it's probably the best example from 2010 of a screenwriter conjuring up a reality based almost exclusively on circumstantial evidence, like Johnnie Cochran pleading OJ Simpson's innocence because of the ill-fitting glove.

We know that Aaron Sorkin's rapid-fire screenplay was adapted from Ben Mezrich's "The Accidental Billionaires" (Mezrich having also written the book that inspired the abhorrent 21 a few years ago). Since The Social Network is an adaptation of the book, I feel it's fair, to some extent, to consider the film a natural extension of the source material. To that end, check out Janet Maslin's excoriating July 2009 review of "The Accidental Billionaires":
"Though we cannot know exactly what went through Ben Mezrich’s mind as he wrote “The Accidental Billionaires,” his nonfictionish book about the creation of Facebook, we can perhaps speculate hypothetically about what it possibly might have been like. After all, wild guessing was, or could have been, or possibly seems to have been, Mr. Mezrich’s own working method. He didn’t have a lot of access. He didn’t have a lot of information. Most crucially, he didn’t have Mark Zuckerberg, the former Harvard student who is famed for having cooked up the Facebook algorithms and is at the heart of the Facebook story.

So Mr. Mezrich had to do some guesswork about Mr. Zuckerberg. And guesswork — long, lyrical, hash-slinging, protracted feats of guesswork, based only glancingly on the rare incontrovertible detail, like the fact that Mr. Zuckerberg liked to wear flip-flops in college — is Mr. Mezrich’s specialty...It should not go unnoticed that Mr. Mezrich started out as a writer of science fiction.

...Did Mr. Zuckerberg do anything wrong in pirating Harvard’s data? “The Accidental Billionaires” does just enough harrumphing about ethics to raise that question. And along those same lines: Has Mr. Mezrich done anything wrong in grossly embellishing, exaggerating and tarting up his material as if he were writing a screenplay? Should the tactics of a script or roman à clef be used for a purportedly nonfiction chronicle?

...“The Accidental Billionaires” is so obviously dramatized, and so clearly unreliable, that there’s no mistaking it for a serious document. (Julia Angwin’s “Stealing MySpace” is an incisive, well-reported book that provides a vastly better look at the gold-rush origins of the social networking business.) And Mr. Mezrich really is a vigorous storyteller in his crass, desperately cinematic way.

Facebook readers can discover from Aaron Sorkin’s Facebook page that Mr. Sorkin, of “The West Wing,” is adapting this book into a movie. Some of its scenes are bound to be more plausible on screen than they are on the page."
And therein lies the rub: no matter how hard we might try, and no matter how much of it is actually true, and no matter that (or likely because) it is such an assured and polished piece of cinema, The Social Network is now, and forever will be, a primary influence on our thinking about Facebook and its founding.

You can deny it, but for better or (probably) for worse, it has significantly changed some of our opinions about Zuckerberg and social networking, and thus also the decisions we'll make about if and how we use Facebook. Since the Facebook story is not yet complete, I find that realization fascinating: The Social Network will influence the real-life future of its characters - Zuckerberg included - considerably more than the average film based on true events (including the others I'm discussing here). It has the potential to be an extremely powerful movie in that regard, and ought to be considered one of the most intriguing films of 2010. 

The Fighter: Here is an example of a movie that, had it been fictional, would have suffered under the weight of its clichés and stock characters. Instead, the film portrays its story so well that you forget that you've ever seen a movie about a washed-up boxer (there's no other type, in case you were wondering).

A large reason the film establishes its own identity is the acting of its leads, particularly Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo. But the members of the cast who aren't even actors are just as important. Several of the supporting characters are locals from Lowell, MA, including Mickey O'Keefe, Micky Ward's real-life trainer who plays himself in the film and blends right in along side the professionals.

Beyond finding the right way to showcase this talent, director David O. Russell also understood that plot embellishments were unnecessary, and that the straight story was good enough. Ward and Dicky Eklund were advisers for Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale throughout filming, scenes were filmed on location, and numerous other touches added to the authenticity of the production (e.g., using old video technology and hiring the HBO crew that actually filmed Micky Ward's fights).

In short, The Fighter is an example of a film that gets better as it gets closer to the reality of what actually happened (a far cry from The Social Network), simply because the characters and story are so rich in the first place. At the end of the day, then, Russell deserves a lot of credit for recognizing what he had and treating it in the most appropriate and effective way. 

Fair Game: Far from the compelling character studies of The Social Network and The Fighter, Fair Game is a juicy story with utterly boring screen presence. The dialogue is dry and empty. The color of the film is bleak and cold. The performances are strained, and, worst of all, the central dilemma, that being the consequences of acting on bad government intelligence, is given little examination outside of the context of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame's personal persecution.

Yes, this was designed to be a personal story anyway (Fair Game is another subject-authorized film, based on Plame's and Wilson's books), but it didn't have to be this narrowly-focused, did it? The movie is half spy thriller and half marital drama, and neither half is very compelling (ironically, director Doug Liman made a comedic version of this movie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a more entertaining film if not an altogether better one). Forced to choose one I would pick the marital half, but even then I'm left with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts going through the motions yet again.

Truth is, the straight facts of Valerie Plame Wilson's story just don't make for gripping cinema, and as viewers we're constantly aware that nothing changed as a result of this controversy. This point is almost accidentally driven home at the end of the film when Joe Wilson delivers a Glenn Beck-worthy rant about God, country, and tyranny, railing against the Bush administration sometime in 2003. Wilson's rant was aimless and inconsequential; Bush was easily re-elected the following year, and we're still in Iraq. Similarly, Fair Game prods and provokes with no payoff, like an apocalyptic preacher on a street corner shouting at passers-by, or that annoying guy you know who's always making arguments about issues that no one really cares about.

All Good Things: Prior to watching Andrew Jarecki's All Good Things, the only introduction I had to its plot was this article in the New York Times describing the film's odd relationship with its primary subject, Robert Durst (known as David Marks in the film). Durst, the troubled heir to a New York real estate empire who was accused of, but never convicted for, a string of murders over the course of two decades, basically approves of the film's depiction of him committing the murders: “The movie...is as reasonably accurate as anything out there, a whole lot more accurate than those endless TV documentaries."

Remember the O.J. Simpson "If I Did It" book debacle? This is that, only it's on film and it's actually seeing the light of day. An accused murderer denying his charges for years, only to implicitly approve the portrayal of himself carrying out the murders on screen (cleverly filmed as they may be in not showing his direct involvement). If you're trying to reconcile this, don't bother. First, Durst has no reason other than his own conscience to reject the film's suggestions, since he can't and won't be tried for any crime. Second, Jarecki goes out of his way to make clear All Good Things exists in its own reality (i.e., all of the names have been changed). Third, the true facts of the story are elusive in the first place, and Jarecki admits as much, stating that "Cinematically, I think it was important to try to speculate a little bit on how these crimes could have all been tied together." So it's all kind of true, except for when it's actually true. 

Like every movie, All Good Things does not exist in a vacuum. The families of the victims are well aware of it and, not surprisingly, supportive of its portrayal of Durst's alleged involvement in the murders, even if cinematic justice is only kind of justice they'll receive. The brother of Durst's ex-wife Kathie (who, if the movie portrays reality, was first victim) left an extended comment on the NYT article, some of which read: "...much good will come from those whose denial of TRUTH has kept my family from closure & justice if they simply accept their own epiphany of conscience. That alone will heal many lingering wounds and an appropriate memorial to Kathie's memory & aspirations can finally occur."

Rare that a film about a heinous crime will receive a stamp of approval from both the perpetrator and the victim, but there it is - All Good Things, the most bizarre crime drama of the year. 

The King's Speech: If not the most surprisingly suspenseful movie of the year, The King's Speech is at the very least the most enjoyably suspenseful movie of the year. There is no action, no mystery, no murder, no crime. Just a maddening. Wait. For. Words. And it's enthralling.

Colin Firth's outstanding performance serves as the film's foundation, but just as impressive is what director Tom Hooper constructed on top of it. The production oozes with a sense of time and place; the set is drenched with sounds and sights that create a comfortable, natural environment for the actors. Be it the foggy road Helena Bonham Carter is being chauffeured on or the location at which she eventually arrives (Geoffrey Rush's cozy office/therapy room), the mind just drinks in the atmosphere and environment.

To create this virtual reality Hooper enhances the tiny details and limits the grand spectacles (see: CGI-storming of the beach in a movie like Troy). In doing so, he allows us to enter the story and experience a unique intimacy with the characters. We're absorbed into disarmingly private moments, from Bertie and Lionel's initial meeting, to Bertie and his brother Edward's frank arguments, to the breathtaking finale for which the film is named. Within this context, we can better understand the characters' feelings and motives, and at that, gain the important insights the story offers about fear, friendship, and determination.

For me, few other films in 2010 exhibited the patience necessary to create this kind of palpable intimacy, and it's one of many reasons The King's Speech is deserving of its many accolades. It's a true story that, like The Fighter, humbly respects its boundaries and respects the viewer's emotional intellect. We don't need to be impressed by too-good-to-be-true dialogue (The Social Network), bombarded by intense drama (Fair Game), or baited with circumstantial speculation (All Good Things). Just pull us in close and present the facts as authentically as possible; every story doesn't need to be told in such an overtly cinematic way. As the saying goes, truth can be stranger (and much more) than fiction - but only when it's actually allowed to be.


  1. This brings up a question I have been considering off and on about film. It starts with the question of what films you watch (post-adolescence) more than, say, 2-3 times. This is, perhaps, a certain type of way for measuring quality. (I'd be interested to hear what type of films someone who matches a substantial number of films spends time going back to).

    Initially I hypothesized that a majority of these would be movies based upon a book or text of some type which existed apart from the movie. But, I don't think that's very universally true. So, add in films which are adaptations of "true events." This seems more plausible, but then, what percentage of movies are you actually leaving out?

    Which may bring one to this question: of the top 20% of movies in quality (define how you will), how many are directly *created* simply via the film writing and production process (yes, a script is a text, but if the text only exists as a script, it is special enough to be separated from other texts). To state it differently, to what extent can we narratively create by moving images unmediated by text (in such a way as to be substantial enough to make it worth returning again and again).

    The fact that I just finished watching _Temple Grandin_, about an autistic person who created through visualization or connecting images, may be affecting how interesting this concept seems.

    I also find your mention of the effect of film images upon our conception of the real events they adapt--the effect upon our understanding of those events themselves, to be quite intriguing. Of course, in absence of film images, what images do we use? Because or minds seem to require visualization as a part of the sense-making process.

    Well, when one gets on the subject of truth and fiction...

  2. I think there are no more "based on true events" movies this year than normal, but they have been much more critically acclaimed this year, which makes them more prominent.

  3. Will, thanks for the interesting analysis. Especially your last question about the images that we use when we don't have a medium like film from which to draw. I can't say I have the answer, but certainly one of the joys of reading fiction is creating those worlds and images in your head, and the freedom you have to imagine them in your own way. Sometimes, true events that are not widely known can offer the same opportunity (like The King's Speech or The Social Network), the difference being that there can be consequences to our accompanying thoughts and actions when the subject is real, like Mark Zuckerberg. It's not hard to see why he and Facebook were initially concerned about how TSN was portraying them. Anyway, interesting to to ponder the "what ifs".

    Dan, that's a valid point that you made me actually look into a little more. If we can generally assume that critical acclaim and Best Picture nominations go hand in hand (most of the time), it's interesting to review the Best Picture nominees throughout history, seemingly a vast majority of which are films inspired by or based on true events. I think you are right about this year's films (TSN, The Fighter, and The King's Speech all getting BP nominations), but I think I also failed to recognize just how prevalent they have been over the years.

  4. I need to come here more often. Wonderfully in-depth and fascinating analysis of the "truish" imagery films present and we subsequently absorb.

    I haven't seen most of those films yet, The Fighter, Fair Game, and All Good Things...but of those I did see, your analysis was spot-on.

    Are there any films that you would say successfully applied the the delicate balancing act of bridging the gap between truth and fiction in the most authentic way?

  5. I always enjoy learning more about the real facts after seeing a movie "based on true events". Sometimes, it is so outlandishly removed from the true facts it's really quite laughable (e.g Unstoppable). Even in 127 Hours, the 7-8 minutes scene of the arm cutting actually took 4 hours in real time. Imagine how excruciating it must have been for Ralston.

  6. Thanks much, MsGo - I need to come here more often, too, apparently. I would say Fair Game and All Good Things are the lesser of these five films; The Fighter won me over pretty easily, despite it basically being a rehash of so many other boxing movies.

    I won't pretend to be an expert on all of the films that have lived in that grayish area, but generally I think the ones that know exactly what they are doing cinematically are most likely to succeed. Two relatively recent examples that for no reason at all just popped into my head: 1) City of God, which was based on a novel that was based on a real childhood and real place, thus creating what felt like a very authentic Brazil; and 2.) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was based on a memoir but adapted by Julian Schnabel into an extremely creative film that made me feel like I actually had locked-in syndrome. The latter really isn't an example in answer to your question, but still a good example of truth done well on screen.

    Castor, I immediately research the "true facts" of a film after seeing it (if not while seeing, at home). Unstoppable - nice! I never got to seeing it and therefore never rushed home to look up the truth, but the claim about a true story in the previews just shocked me. I'm like, how does a true story about a runaway "missile" train live outside of anyone's awareness? I'll be interested to dig into that one after seeing it; the "true story" is probably that there was once a train on a track in Pennsylvania (or wherever it takes place). 127 Hours is also a good example of one that I rushed home to read about. I was most curious about whether he actually shot video of himself, which is apparently true but I think I read that the footage hasn't been seen by anyone outside of Ralston's family.


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