How True Should a “Based on a True Story” Movie Be?

Posted on January 2, 2015 at 8:10 pm

What does “based on a true story” really mean? The Washington Post had a front-page story titled, “‘Selma’ sets off a controversy amid Oscar buzz,” describing the objections by Lyndon Johnson administration insiders to the way he was portrayed. They say it was his idea to go to Selma, that he supported Dr. King’s efforts, and that he had nothing to do with the FBI’s surveillance and J. Edgar Hoover’s sending tapes of King’s supposed affairs to Mrs. King.

Historian Michael Bechloss has posted this handwritten note made by King for his conversation with LBJ:

Vox’s Matthew Yglisias has responded to the criticisms from those who object to the portrayal of LBJ’s views and actions.  

And now my friend Jen Yamoto is summarizing objections to “Selma” and to other “based on a true story” films “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” “Unbroken,” and “Big Eyes.” Some of these are the concerns of those trying to make sure that those who take their “history” from Oscar-worthy feature films at least begin to question the capacity of any dramatic work to be accurate in conveying historical events.  But some are just sniping by competitors in the Oscar race.

As Jen writes:

Oscar voting opened Monday, and like clockwork, the haters have come calling. As Deadline’s Pete Hammond wrote on Monday, ’tis the season for controversy over fact-based awards contenders: Now, Bennett Miller’s real-life Olympian tragedy Foxcatcher and Tim Burton’s art exposé Big Eyeshave joined MLK Jr. drama Selma, the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken in ducking for cover over accuracy issues in mixing fact-based stories with narrative structure.

Even the most scrupulous accuracy will still reflect choices of perspective, tone, and emphasis.  The best we can hope from any work of art is that it is the beginning, not the end, of an inquiry into the subject.

The Guardian takes on the portrayal of Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.”

Movie critic Ann Hornaday has an excellent piece on this subject in the Washington Post. She wisely concludes:

if the Gotcha Game is here to stay, we can at least agree on some new rules. And we can begin by adjusting our own attitudes toward fact-based films and their inevitable nit-pickers. Rather than the dualistic one’s-right-one’s-wrong model, it behooves audiences to cultivate a third eye — a new, more sophisticated way of appreciating both the art and the reality that inspires it.

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Based on a true story Commentary Critics Understanding Media and Pop Culture


Posted on November 20, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Copyright Sony Pictures 2014
Copyright Sony Pictures 2014

John Eleuthère Du Pont was of the wealthiest men in the world. He was an ornithologist, a philatelist, a purchaser of military weapons (including a tank), a wrestling fan who set up a luxurious training facility for the US Olympic team, and a murderer who died in prison in 2010. Steve Carell, almost unrecognizable, does a better job of erasing himself than of creating a different character. He has a hawkish nose, a set of small, inbred-looking teeth, a clenched posture, and the aristocratic delivery of a prep school graduate used to deference from everyone but his mother. But he is never able to make it all into anything but a cipher. Director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) and screenwriters Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye wisely stay away from simple explanations and Lifetime Made-for TV-style histrionics.  Miller’s pallette is drab and his presentation is spare, in contrast to the opulence of the Du Pont estate and the training facility. But the film overcorrects, as though underplaying and long, silent stretches without even a musical score can somehow convey seriousness and import.

It begins promisingly as we see Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (a somber Channing Tatum) stumbling his way through a talk to some bored schoolkids about character and America, and then waiting awkwardly for his pay, $20. And one of the best scenes of the year is his practice session with his brother, best (and only) friend, and coach, David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), also a gold medalist. There is enormous tenderness in David’s touch as he pushes on Mark’s arms to stretch him, and even as it seamlessly turns into a wrestling match that eloquently conveys intimacy, trust, dependence, and some competition as well.


Mark gets a call from some Du Pont factotum, inviting him to come to Delaware to meet John on his luxurious estate, called Foxcatcher because of the fox hunting history of the Du Ponts, a rare family that has been wealthy since the earliest days of American history.

On the surface, John conveys an easy noblesse oblige as he introduces himself, and Mark is nowhere near worldly enough to see the arrogance and instability under the surface.  Mark has been listening to coaches all his life.  When John says he likes to be called “Eagle,” Mark sees leadership. When John says he wants to help Mark be the best in the world, Mark sees a chance for something he did not let himself realize he wanted, a chance to be more independent.  And independence is what John is looking for, too.  He is an adult dependent in many ways on his mother, bitter about her focus on horses and her obvious feelings for him, somewhere between indifference and contempt.

John builds a lavish training facility (in real life for more sports than just wrestling).  “Foxcatcher” is emblazoned everywhere.  The athletes are polite, even respectful, but no one thinks John has anything but money to contribute.  Mark loves being seen as special and gets caught up in John’s decadent lifestyle.  But then John, who has the attention span of a mayfly, decides he needs to bring Dave in, too.  Dave’s lack of interest only makes him more determined.  Soon, Dave and his wife and children are at Foxcatcher.  Mark is resentful.  John is increasingly unstable and there is no one there to stop him until it is too late.  When it’s over, he is affectless.  The problem is, too much of the movie is as well.

Parents should know that this film has tense and disturbing confrontations, some violence including murder, strong language, drinking, and drugs

Family discussion: What was John hoping to achieve by sponsoring wrestlers? How did he feel about John? How did he feel about Dave? Why?

If you like this, try: “Capote” and “Reversal of Fortune”

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Based on a true story Crime Drama Sports

November 2014: Movies This Month

Posted on November 1, 2014 at 8:00 am

It’s going to be a great month at the movies! November is traditionally the time when we start to see the big awards hopefuls. Next Friday, two of the most anticipated films of the year open: Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as explorers seeking a new planet for humans who can no longer live on a desolate, broken Earth, and Disney’s “Big Hero 6,” based on the Marvel comic about a lovable robot and the equally lovable nerds who work with him to save the day.

And then:

November 14:

“Beyond the Lights” — a romantic drama about a fragile pop star (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her ambitious mother (Minnie Driver), and the handsome, true-hearted cop who rescues her (Nate Parker).

“The Theory of Everything” — the most brilliant scientist of our time, Stephen Hawking, is confined to a wheelchair and speaks through a computer, because he has ALS. This is the story of his days in school, falling in love, early work, and learning of his illness. It stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

“Rosewater” — John Stewart wrote and directed this story of a journalist named Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) who was jailed for his reporting.

November 21:

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” Jennifer Lawrence is back in the next-to-last of the series.

“Foxcatcher” In this fact-based story from the writer and director of “Capote,” Steve Carell is almost unrecognizable as the unstable heir to the Dupont fortune who sponsored Olympic wrestling team hopefuls — and murdered one of them. Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum co-star as the real life Schultz brothers, both gold medal winners.

November 26:

“Penguins of Madagascar” puts the most popular characters from the “Madagascar” series in the middle of the action for a spy story co-starring John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch.

“Horrible Bosses 2” Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day are back (and so are Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston) for another wild comedy, this time co-starring Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine.

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Opening This Month
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