Does It Actually Matter How “True” Our “True Story” Movies Are?

Look, it’s not that I make a habit of reading the message boards at IMDb, a pool of intellectualism falling somewhere between an Ain’t It Cool News comment section and the bathroom wall scrawlings of a particularly noxious truck stop. But when I was on the site a couple of weeks back while writing my rave of Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips (out today in wide release), a posting labeled “The Real Story…” caught my eye, and I executed an eye roll that nearly gave me a migraine. Here they go again, I thought. You see, it’s prestige movie season, and since “true stories” are such proven awards bait, we’re going to have to hear a whole lotta nattering about the details and inaccuracies in all of them. It’s as much a yearly ritual as the Oscar derby itself, and nearly as ridiculous, because such nitpicking has next to nothing to do with the value of the films themselves.

“Hope the film doesn’t forget about the rest of the ‘heroes’ on board the Maersk Alabama,” sneers the IMDb poster. “After all, Capt. Phillips became a hero by virtue of sailing his ship into pirate-infested waters, being captured immediately and held hostage until freed by the Navy SEALs.” He (I’m assuming it’s a he; the handler is “goatdiddler”) then proceeds to give a point-by-point description of what happened during the hijacking of the Maersk to ensure that “the media” (oh, The Media) and the film don’t give “the real heroes short shrift.” Here’s what’s hilarious about the post: Everything that he describes is, to the detail, part of the film. His message was written on September 24, three days before the film’s world premiere at the New York Film Festival. He was fact-checking the movie sight unseen.

But that’s the reflexive crouch adopted by everyone from anonymous commenters to major new organizations now: that any film based on true events must be considered for its total historical accuracy first, and its artistic value a distant, barely mentionable second. CNN and ABC have both run sensationalistic stories about the “controversy” surrounding the film (and the lawsuit from crew members that questions his heroism); sadly, neither story is any more informed than IMDb’s “goatdiddler.” The issue of Phillips’ culpability in the Alabama’s route is raised and handled satisfactorily in the film, but little matter — those reports don’t seem to have seen it.

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This is by no means a phenomenon exclusive to Captain Phillips. Awards chatter has surrounded 12 Years a Slave since its festival run began last month, and for good reason — it’s a harrowing, powerful, emotionally exhausting film, one of the year’s best. But nearly a month before its release, here’s The New York Times, carefully noting doubts about both the veracity of the memoir that inspired it and that book’s authorship. Wikileaks, an organization that really should have more important things to do, is combating Bill Condon’s upcoming The Fifth Estate with an annotated screenplay and “talking points” about the film’s inaccuracies (down to its assertion that Julian Assange dyes his hair).

And it’s not a phenomenon confined to “true story” narratives. Gravity was released on October 4 and swiftly knocked out critics and moviegoers with its brisk intensity. Two days later, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Twitter to knock it down a few notches by poking holes in the scientific details, because as we all know, science-fiction films are notorious for never fudging the science.

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Such babble does nothing to diminish the power of these films — I don’t retroactively regret the tears I shed at 12 Years’ brutal lashings if someone tells me they landed on the backs of composite characters any more than I second-guess the force with which Gravity moved and excited me simply because Tyson wants to know where Sandra Bullock’s space diaper was. But there’s a smugness to these attempted takedowns (and to those who crowingly share them on your various timelines), an ugly implication that they’d like you to feel, to some degree, like a sucker for being transported by these experiences — and an unspoken desire to ruin them for you with their self-satisfied “fact-checking.” (There is also, as The Wrap notes, a tendency for inaccuracy “whisper campaigns” to accompany Oscar buzz, a rarely effective but frequently deployed strategy dating from 1999’s The Hurricane through last year’s Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.)

No one’s disputing the idea of preventing outright fiction from presenting itself as fact — but that’s not what we’re talking about in the cases of Phillips or 12 Years or most of the films that find themselves on the receiving end of these criticisms. When Roger Ebert wrote about JFK (another film that attracted more than its share of criticism over its “accuracy”), he clarified that while the journalists who were criticizing it want facts, as a film critic, “I want moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares. As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotions. My notion is that JFK is no more, or less, factual than Stone’s Nixon or Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Amistad, Out of Africa, My Dog Skip, or any other movie based on ‘real life.’ All we can reasonably ask is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

Captain Phillips (and 12 Years a Slave, and even Gravity) do that, and then some. In the process of doing so, characters may be combined, dialogue may be created, incidents may be compressed. These modifications are allowed (just as they are in adapting, say, books into films) and expected, as they are part and parcel of the creation of cinematic drama. They make movies that are obligated to correctly represent every tiny detail, you know. They’re called documentaries.