The moment a movie declares itself to be based on or inspired by a true story, an inevitable debate begins to brew.
The purpose of a fictionalized film can vary, but the requirements of a Hollywood movie — namely, a clear narrative, obvious protagonists and antagonists, and at least a loose three-act structure — mean that any work that calls on some sort of history will manipulate facts and timelines.
When is that OK to do, and when is it irresponsible? An easy rule of thumb is that facts can be fudged, but truth must remain intact.
Take The Fifth Estate. Even before the movie debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was dogged by an unconventional critic: its subject matter.
In depicting the formative years, public triumphs and alleged private shortcomings of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the Bill Condon-directed film is the rare major motion picture made about a prominent figure while the events that shape its narrative are still so fresh in our memories. After Assange tried in vain to convince Benedict Cumberbatch not to play him in the movie, his organization began an assault on the film's presentation of recent history, alleging that in basing its screenplay in large part on a book by WikiLeaks outcast Daniel Domscheit-Berg, it is simply a piece of anti-Assange propaganda. Other advocates take a more nuanced view, commending the movie for its focus on WikiLeaks' early days, but still fret that it errs toward the U.S. State Department's version events, which alleges that major leaks of confidential information hurt United States' interests.
Cumberbatch and Condon have worked to counter the criticism, in part by saluting Assange for his role in uncovering government secrets and changing the face of modern journalism. They also left out of their film the rape accusations that hang over Assange's head and have kept him trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. And, as they say, it is a fictional film based on true events, which gives them license to streamline, simplify, and eliminate details that muck up the familiar narrative process required to satisfy mainstream moviegoers.
So, who's right? Technically, in making a film about a public figure, Condon and company have the right to put whatever they'd like on screen. Free speech, after all, is one of Assange's major tenets. And, it's unlikely that either a grand jury looking into WikiLeaks, or Swedish courts and British authorities that will determine Assange's fate, will make any sort of decision based on what they see in The Fifth Estate. But with government secrecy as big an issue as ever, and with as much nuance and confusion surrounding the cases of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and the National Security Agency — paired with The Fifth Estate touting itself as a major voice in that conversation — it is naive to think that the number of people who will use the film as an important and principal reference point will be insignificant.
It is unfair to demand from a film total fealty to even the most timely subject matter, or lay the responsibility of educating the country at the feet of a movie. But in this atmosphere, the criticism is not unwarranted; when you wade into a debate, preemptive caveats do not provide immunity from skepticism, because accuracy is relevant and consequential.
The squabble over The Fifth Estate is reminiscent of the debate last year over Zero Dark Thirty, which came under fire for writer Mark Boal's close research meetings with the Obama administration, and the way director Kathryn Bigelow's movie — considered one of the best of 2012 — seemingly endorsed the efficacy of torture in pursuit of information crucial to stopping acts of terror. That the movie came during a heated election year — and drew charges of a pro-Obama (if not liberal) bias — complicated the issue even further, even if it was released after the voters went to the polls.
In this case, it was harder to know the truth of the events that the movie fictionalized, given the very confidential nature of the mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden, as well as the records pertaining to American treatment of Middle Eastern detainees. But the debate over the veracity of the film's recounting of a seminal moment in American history, and the intense scrutiny over its depiction of torture and its utility, were very useful and necessary. As the country continues its military involvement in the region and news coverage fades, films become an even more important frame of reference for the population at large that never sees war up close.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are several other new releases that have come under scrutiny for wandering from absolute truth when the truth is not quite as crucial.
Another film based on recent events, Captain Phillips, opened last weekend. The story of a merchant freighter ship that gets boarded by Somali pirates, the movie features Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips, the boat's steely captain. Though an imperfect leader, the movie ultimately depicts Phillips as brave and selfless. It has drawn raves from critics but howls from crew members of the real hijacked ship, who contend that Phillips was partly responsible for the initial attacks, and not a commendable hero.
That may well be true, but it's besides the point in this case because the degree of Phillips' heroism has no real impact on the public at large. If and when the truth comes out — there is a lawsuit pending — it will make for an interesting story for journalists. But for the purposes of Hollywood, manipulating the story to create a better narrative for audiences does minimal harm, because there are no great stakes in representing him truthfully.
Beyond subjective representation, sometimes fights over details cloud the greater purpose of a movie. Take this summer's critical and box office hit Fruitvale Station, which focuses on what would become the last day in the life of Oakland, Calif., man Oscar Grant, who was killed by Bay Area transit police on New Year's Eve, 2009. Director Ryan Coogler worked with both law enforcement and Grant's family to piece together the footsteps of the 22-year-old, but not every hour could be accounted for, as Grant spent some of his day alone.
And so, Coogler invented several scenes to plug into the gaps of the reconstructed timeline, including one that features Grant, as played by Michael B. Jordan, cradling a dog as it whimpers toward death after being hit by a car. The scene was inspired by something that happened to Coogler's brother, and was meant to portray both Grant's humanity and introduce the fragility and cruel randomness of life into a story that would ultimately be punctuated by great tragedy.
The point was to capture Grant's essence, even if it required some fictionalization. The same goes for what director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley did on 12 Years a Slave, the critically acclaimed film inspired by the life of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s. The movie, a harrowing triumph of fearless projection of the worst of mankind, is actually a streamlined version of what really happened to Northup, which he recounted in the memoir from which the film takes its title.
Northup passed through more owners and difficult jobs in his decade-plus as a slave, but McQueen largely limits the journey to two plantations, focusing most of the time on the nightmares inside the sadistic cotton farm of a twisted couple played by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson. By limiting the travel and plot machinations, McQueen is able to concentrate on the appalling indignities that happened to a slave on an everyday basis, freeing time and audience attention to better soak in and comprehend the depravity with which Northup — courageously played by Chiwetel Ejiofor — and fellow slaves were subjected, including full sequences dedicated to his time desperately struggling in a noose and the terrible whippings he was forced to deliver to his friends.
The point of the movie is to try to begin to understand, even if just from afar and for several hours in a comfortable chair with popcorn, the sheer evil of slavery. That is the larger truth of 12 Years a Slave, not the exact reenactment of every backward transaction.
Most harmless were the slight scientific liberties that filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón took with Gravity. Though astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson had plenty of fun — and earned the attention he was so obviously seeking — while trolling audiences by pointing out mistakes in the movie's representation of the physics of space travel, he entirely missed the point.
Gravity is not a Nova documentary, nor is it an effort to encourage debate on the physics of just how the disaster that left stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney — who play astronauts working to fix a space station — would actually go down. Those are small details, story devices and step ladders to the higher questions that the movie asks. What's more important is how audiences feel while watching the movie — probably panicked — and the performance that Bullock gives as a distraught woman grappling with the pull of death.
Cuarón's film is also a technological wonder, meant to awe viewers with its unparalleled depictions of space. For example, the direction in which the debris of a space wreck would orbit the earth is irrelevant, and thrusting a superiority complex into the faces of moviegoers who are enjoying a rare out-of-body experience is the sort of attention-grabbing that does nothing to further the consideration of the work.
That is not to say that fantasy is not responsible to reality in some cases. This summer's Man of Steel, I think, proved that with the sheer destruction rained down upon Metropolis. It is a fake city populated by fictional people, but in its posture as a very serious comic book adaptation, the Superman film's casual mass genocide became an issue.
In an estimate done for BuzzFeed, Watson Technical Consulting found that over 300,000 people would have probably died during the final battle between Superman and General Zod. The place of such casual devastation in our popcorn entertainment — and the escalation in pop culture carnage that it represented — was a worthy discussion to have.