Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Should 'based on a true story' movies have an obligation to facts?

My wife and I got into an argument on this subject recently. After watching The Social Network and looking into what the real people depicted in the movie thought of the movie, one of them described it as "about 40% accurate." This really upset my wife, because although she didn't love the movie like I did, she felt that the filmmakers had an obligation to not make up what are essentially "lies" about the actual people they were portraying onscreen.

I have always felt that a filmmaker has only an obligation to the audience in the form of making a good movie. The truest of "based on a true story" movies is still a fiction film, so I don't take any scene in the movie as "what actually happened" anyway and only take it on the value of what it means to the movie. My wife contends that a majority of filmgoers believe any "based on a true story" movie wholeheartedly, so if a film is making up 60% of the story (especially when it portrays its lead character as a douchbag), it's a form of slander against the real people.

I agree that your average moviegoer believes "true story" movies without question, but I don't see why that is the problem of the filmmakers. Roger Ebert once said "Artists cannot hold themselves hostage to the possibility that defectives might misuse their work." He was talking about even negative portrayals of the KKK possibly seeming cool to Joe Idiot out there, but the point can be used across the board, I think. Then again, writer Paul Schrader has said he felt a certain responsibility for Taxi Driver supposedly inciting John Hinckley, Jr.'s attempted assassination of President Reagan.

So where does a filmmakers obligation lay when it comes to telling the truth in "based on a true story" film? And do filmmakers have a responsibility in regards to audience response to their work, positive or negative or blissfully ignorant of facts? I don't think so, what do you think?


Alec & Emma Davis said...

I use to believe that a movie that stated was "based on a true story" was mostly from actual events. After finding out about so many movies like this are exagerated or have added scenarios, I expect many of them to have the main theme based on actual events and 99% made up. Perfect Storm and Open Water are the only ones I can think of right now, but that's apparent after the movie ends - you know everything is speculation. What really makes me mad are the movies that have to lie about being true to make up for it's crappyness - Blair Witch and the Fourth Kind.

Groggy Dundee said...

Good post. This is a very hard topic for me to address, because I'm a History major. I'm often sensitive to inaccuracy but it usually doesn't bother me when a movie makes some alterations to fact.

Usually I mind if:

1. The film makes pretenses to accuracy (JFK)
2. The changes is fact are unmotivated dramatically (Cheyenne Autumn)
3. The changes in fact make the story less interesting than the real thing (Public Enemies)

And even then I'm not too critical about stuff like the '36 Charge of the Light Brigade and The Wind and the Lion because they doesn't make the slightest pretense to accuracy. Errol Flynn's Charge was a complete joke and yet it's far better than the '68 Tony Richardson version, which is fairly accurate.

The hullabaloo over The King's Speech and The Social Network's inaccuracy struck me as rather ridiculous. Did the films fudge a few facts or misrepresent the main characters? Sure. Did it foul up facts beyond recognition? Not really. Did it do so more than your average Hollywood film? Hell no.

There are special cases like JFK and Birth of a Nation which shape the public's perception of an event, more specifically towards a reprehensible point-of-view. I do have a problem separating historical accuracy from films like those two.

So, I'm not sure I have an answer for this one.