Based on a true story
Originally published May 24, 2019
Most movies are entertaining fiction. There is no African country of Wakanda or an exotic island where pre-historic dinosaurs roam. Rocky Balboa does not exist, and there is no Batman. (If there were a Batman though, Michael Keaton’s portrayal would be the most accurate.) But unfortunately, when a filmmaker hangs the tag "Based on a true story,” on a movie, or the film represents history, many people think they are getting the truth.
Aaron Sorkin, penned the stories for Moneyball, Molly’s Game, Steve Jobs, and The Social Network; all based on true stories - Billy Beane’s introduction of metrics to baseball management, Molly Bloom’s move from Olympic skier to manager of high stakes poker games, and the rise of Apple and Facebook’s iconic leaders. In talking with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast about bringing these true-life stories to the screen, Sorkin said, "My fidelity is to the story, not the truth." Sorkin doesn’t subscribe to the idea that you have to be authentic for authenticity’s sake.
The fidelity of my educational story is that I attended both Yale and Oxford Universities. The truth is Yale’s was two days in 2004, and Oxford’s was a week ten years later.
Most moviegoers never verify the accuracy of the story and leave the theatre with misconceptions, misperceptions, and misinformation about historic events. In the 2017 movie Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman transformed himself into Winston Churchill and won an Oscar for it. The story veered down the paths of fantasy and fiction and earned an Academy Award nomination for doing it. Churchill's personal secretary, a vital part of the story, did not actually begin working for him until after the events depicted in the film took place, and the direct phone line that Churchill used to call Roosevelt didn’t exist until 1943. The movie’s most egregious historical sin was a scene where Churchill rode the London Underground to get a sense of how Londoners were feeling. There is no evidence this ever took place, let alone inspire one of his most famous speeches. The film’s director called this scene a “fictionalization of the emotional truth.”
The emotional truth is you wanted to stop for a few beers after work. The fictionalization is a friend was struggling with a personal crisis and only you could offer the advice they needed to recover.
The movie Spotlight shone a bright light on Boston Globe reporters who uncovered widespread child sex abuse in Boston’s Catholic Churches. At the time of its release, amid claims of inaccuracies, the film's co-writer and director Tom McCarthy said, "The movie is based on real events and uses, by necessity, scenes, and dialogue to introduce characters, provide context and articulate broad themes.” This introduction of characters and articulating broad themes portrayed Jack Dunn, the director of public affairs at Boston College, so inaccurately he left the theatre and vomited. Then he sued. As part of the settlement, the producers admitted in a public statement, "As is the case with most movies based on historical events, ‘Spotlight’ contains fictionalized dialogue that was attributed to Mr. Dunn for dramatic effect. We acknowledge that Mr. Dunn was not part of the Archdiocesan cover-up.”
Journalist Brian Williams enhanced his experiences in war-torn Iraq for dramatic effect and lost the coveted anchor chair of NBC Nightly News. The creators of Spotlight were rewarded for their use of dramatic effect with Oscars for best picture and best original screenplay.
One of the most dramatic stories in American history is the Apollo 11 moon landing. Historian James R. Hansen’s book First Man, about the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the surface, was the basis for the 2018 film of the same name. There is an emotional scene where Armstrong makes an unscheduled walk and drops his daughter’s baby bracelet into a crater. Although there is no evidence Armstrong left anything behind, during his research Hansen got a sense it could have happened and thinks if he did leave something of his daughter's behind, like her baby bracelet, it would have made the landing more memorable. Hansen claims, “there are times when the power of poetry prevails over the uncertainty of fact.” Or does the power of money in exchange for story rights and a co-producer credit prevail over facts?
Aaron Sorkin wrote the play and subsequent screenplay for the fictional story, A Few Good Men. In a memorable scene Jack Nicholson as Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessup, in a vicious way tells a young lawyer, portrayed by Tom Cruise, “You can’t handle the truth.”
Sorkin and others who build movie narratives around history and true stories should understand audiences not only need the truth, but history requires it.