Enough Is Enough: “Based on a True Story” Doesn’t Mean “100% True Story”

FILED TO: Politics


Quick: There’s a big-budget Hollywood movie that’s nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, a drama about a real-life event from America’s history, that’s currently being raked over the coals by some very vocal critics for what they claim is its lack of factual accuracy. They say its creators’ decision to highlight certain questionable parts of the supposedly true story while leaving others safely out amounts to little more than potentially dangerous propaganda. They say the film does a disservice to audiences by essentially lying to them about what really happened. They disapprove — and they want to make sure the movie is denied the official endorsement of an Oscar. What film am I talking about?

Trick question. Actually, there are four movies nominated for Best Picture this year that have faced a certain amount of critical outrage for not sticking to the true story of what happened when they supposedly should have. You probably immediately thought of Zero Dark Thirty and the insane backlash over its depiction of torture, the backlash that turned it from an early Oscar frontrunner into a pop culture pariah. But Lincoln and Django Unchained have also taken a beating, and now that Argo has emerged as the M1 Abrams tank of nominees, rolling over everything in sight, it seems that it’s time for critics of its lack of absolute adherence to the facts to make their voices heard. To wit: Andrew O’Hehir’s deeply ridiculous piece in Salon yesterday called “‘Argo’ Doesn’t Deserve the Oscar.”

In the column, O’Hehir argues that the film is generally a by-the-numbers caper flick and not much more, but that’s not specifically why he believes it should be denied the Best Picture honor. His problem with the movie and its director-writer duo, Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio, is that they fudged the facts and created, in his mind, a grand scale lie — a wholesale piece of jingoistic propaganda that conveniently glosses over the realities of not simply the rescue of six American hostages from a besieged Iranian capital but the mood of the U.S. during that time in general.

The basic argument:

“It’s a totalizing fiction whose turning points are narrow escapes and individual derring-do designed to foreground Affleck and his star power (instead of the long, grinding work of Canadian-American collaboration behind the scenes that made the real rescue possible), an adventure yarn whose twists raise your pulse rate but keep the happy ending clearly in view… Affleck and Terrio are spinning a fanciful tale designed to make us feel better about the decrepit, xenophobic and belligerent Cold War America of 1980 as it toppled toward the abyss of Reaganism, and that’s a more outrageous lie than any of the contested historical points in ‘Lincoln’ or ‘Zero Dark Thirty.'”

So this is where we are now: criticizing Hollywood movies because, in the name of actually entertaining audiences with things like a captivating narrative and for basically doing what writers have done since the dawn of time, they occasionally tell stories that are only based on true stories and aren’t, in fact, true stories. We do this, I assume and judging by the apoplexy over Zero Dark Thirty, because we’re terrified of people getting the wrong idea and leaping to faulty conclusions about history, the supposed objective reality of certain experiences, what-have-you. Apparently, if it deals with a topic someone believes is sacred and for the sake of ensuring the edification of the profoundly stupid, any creative effort should be straight documentary and nothing else.

There’s nothing wrong with attempting to clarify for the general public the discrepancies in accuracy in any work of fact-based fiction, but it’s something else entirely to emphatically chastise that work for taking dramatic license in the name of creating entertainment. No matter how much a writer, director or producer claims to have tried to stick to the facts of a real-life story, he or she knows full well — and expects the audience to have enough sense to understand — that a certain amount of creative liberty was taken in the name of making a product people would actually want to see and enjoy. Or even, sometimes, a work whose overall arc honors the spirit of the story as well as the individual details. We’re now at a point though, apparently, where we need to be patriarchally lectured on how much is too much artistic deviation from the facts — for our own good. It’s an alarming and insidious trend in entertainment.

I get that Andrew O’Hehir — whose straightforward reviews I normally tend to agree with, by the way — is one critic making one observation about one movie, but he’s obviously not the only one making the only observation about the only movie. The righteous indignation over the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is what turned it from what I believe is genuinely the best movie of the year, certainly from a filmmaking standpoint, into a third rail non-entity during this year’s awards season. An exceptional film suffers because it isn’t “true” enough to satisfy a very vocal group of detractors who believe that its subject matter is simply too important or explosive to be fictionalized in any way. Our need to seek out any and all potential flashpoints over which we can loudly argue partisan politics once again infects every facet of our culture. Even our movies. Why? Because these days when it comes to self-righteously meting out tribal political orthodoxy, to quote a famous saying, that’s entertainment.

Oh well. I guess there’s always the possibility that, in the final few days of voting, Academy-members could take the “controversy” over Argo to heart and shift the momentum over to something less contentious like Silver Linings Playbook. That would be simpler — right?


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  • chilisize

    The way in which a work takes liberties with historical truth is certainly fair game, whether it’s Tarantino depicting Hitler getting gunned down by a badass commando unit, Oliver Stone offering up an “alternative” narrative to the Warren Commission findings, or ZDT’s retelling of the torture as an improvised and rogue rather than systematic and programatic, and crucial to the eventual apprehending of bin Laden.

    O’Heir objects to Argo (a movie I enjoyed) not because they fudged facts, but because he believes they did so in a way that would lead reasonable people to believe substantial things that are not true. No reasonable person is going to do have that happen to them because of any Tarantino flick.

    Mr Panzienza’s complaint is as empty here as it is with his obnoxious whinging over the president’s critics on the left: He *loves* the movie, he *loves* the president, anyone saying anything critical is just wrong wrong wrong, because.

    • villemar

      Thank you for being the arbiter of what is acceptable. We are mewling babes who must be protected and sheilded through proper didactic channels and this is why I value your hard work and all of your efforts at the Ministry of Culture.

      • chilisize

        You’re confused. *All* criticism is acceptable, and only a dimwit, or a very dishonest person, would say that I was in any way telling anyone what they can or cannot say. Or think. For the record, villemar, all the paperwork has been checked and and signed and any stupid, braindead, dumb as used rocks nonsense you type up and share here is thoroughly “acceptable.”

        Sometimes people don’t like the movies you like, and sometimes they have very good reasons for not doing so. Try not to let it bring you down so much. Idiot.

        • villemar

          If it’s any consolation, your Indignation is Trendy. So at least your Hipster cred remains intact.

          • chilisize

            Hilarious, so I’m a “hipster” now? Someone tell my wife.

            Now it’s confirmed: You are a boob.

  • villemar

    Great, so when can I go see *your* cinematic adaptation of the Matthew Quick novel? I’m confident you’ll school the fuck out of Russell for doing it wrong (especially considering your impeccable and voluminous filmography).

    • james

      I don’t really understand. I don’t need to read a book in order to judge a movie. If you need to be provided a manual to completely understand a film, I think that’s a pretty good indication that you haven’t really done your job as a filmmaker.

      Further, you seem to insinuate that I have to make my own film adaptation of a book I’ve never read in order to provide a valid critique of a movie. Why? If I think that “Tango and Cash” is dogshit (and for good reason), I don’t have to produce my own “superior” version of the film in order to support my point.

      • villemar

        And your point would be what, that you didn’t like the movie? I understand and have no problem with that, it’s a free country, people have different cinematic tastes. But how is that relevant to this article?

        • james

          I don’t think you’re following your own logic. Chez ended up referencing Silver Linings in an article about how movies are not, and are not supposed to be 100% accurate to true life. And that’s true. But the problem with Silver Linings isn’t that it’s not a 100% accurate portrayal of mental illness as defined by the DSM, it’s that it sets itself in that KIND of world, where mental illnesses are debilitating and have actual consequences and keep destroying relationships… and then suddenly forgets that for a tidy ending. The point is that referencing Silver Linings for this piece was incorrect. The kickback on THIS movie, as opposed to the others he referenced, has nothing to do with real-life accuracy; it has everything to do with the ending wholly and completely contradicting its own structural theme.

          • villemar

            You still haven’t made the case for why you like or don’t like the movie, or any movie Chez referenced, for anything other than aesthetic reasons. This is not what the article is about. Structural critiques are aesthetic critiques.

          • james

            No offense, but I don’t think “aesthetic” means what you think it means. Having an aesthetic reason for disliking a movie is something to the tune of “I didn’t like Daniel Day Lewis’s voice in Lincoln.” What’s wrong with Silver Linings Playbook isn’t aesthetic; it’s structural. It contradicts itself. However, because it has really, really great performances and has a crowd-pleasing ending (rather than actually sticking within its own structural theme), it’s overlooked.

            This was an article about how films aren’t supposed to be 100% accurate to true life, and invalid critiques that have come based on that premise. He mentions Silver Linings. I said that he’s incorrect to use Silver Linings as an example, because the criticism with that movie isn’t that it’s not 100% accurate as to the effects of mental illness, but that it ends up contradicting itself. Whether or not I “like” Silver Linings or any other movie that he talks about is irrelevant to the discussion, because we’re not talking about whether or not we “liked” a movie. We’re talking about whether or not a particular criticism thrown at a movie is valid or not.

  • http://www.sockpuppettheatre.com/ John Foley

    I really did love Silver Linings Playbook, but it definitely took a weird turn when the whole “mental illness” thing just kind of faded into the background. At some point, with no real warning or explanation, Pat just stops being bipolar and it’s never mentioned again.
    Somehow the movie still works for me in spite of this.

  • Christopher Foxx

    I think some of the reaction to Zero Dark Thirty, from both sides, is that this “entertainment” could be used to further a political agenda.

    That’s something that could be said for just about any piece of entertainment, I suppose. But the debate over torture is recent, still happening, and deeply felt. And, for better or worse, people get most of their information from entertainments these days.

    So, if Zero Dark Thirty isn’t intended to be an accurate portrayal, folks opposed to the message it may seem to give (“there are benefits to torture” to simplify it greatly) want it clearly understood that the film isn’t realistic.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=663669914 Sean Richardson

      Also, the director (Bigelow) and the writer (Boal) and pretty much everybody who was marketing the movie decided to focus exclusively on how “true” it was. For all the defenders claiming “It’s a movie, it doesn’t need to be accurate,” that’s certainly true in the abstract, but they made the decision to focus on that as a selling point. And most of the initial criticism was about how amazing an achievement it was that it was so well done as a movie *and* so historically sound. So the fact that its facts are not facts does seem relevant to the general conversation about the movie.

      I don’t think this applies to ‘Argo’, and certainly not to ‘Django’, because both are presented as entertainment-based movies. And, as for ‘Lincoln’, I don’t think it belongs in the conversation because the degree of liberty it took with history is significantly less than the other three.

  • ranger11

    Not Playbook! Maybe “Life of Pi”. Now that’s effective realism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bob.simonhouse Bob Simonhouse

    I both agree and disagree. Ha! You’re right we’re stupid to think a movie sticks to facts over the pursuit ot creative expression. However, I think Argo in particular was billed as being a true story. As in, “this really happened”! Now, where that perception is cooked up might be media people or critics, movie promoters, I don’t know. I haven’t seen any of the films in question, but I did have the perception that Argo is a true story, not just based on a true story. That perception came from media, but I wonder if it was just lazy journalists taking liberty with facts or the film promoters doing so to get more butts in the seats. Either way, I’m mad now to learn Argo is not a true story, I was looking forward to seeing it. I’m mad at myself too for being an idiot and thinking the film is a true story. I still want to see the movie, but now it will be with grounded expectation: to purely be entertained and enjoy the story, vs. that and an extra feeling of respect for the real people the characters in the movie represent.

    • http://twitter.com/chezpazienza Chez Pazienza

      If not specifically billed as a documentary, there isn’t a “true story” you’ve seen in any movie that was actually an entirely true story. The basic facts of “Argo” are true. Some of the twists and details are of course license. Most people would go into the film understanding that. I just can’t see how the knowledge that not every single thing that happens in the movie happened the same way in real-life would affect anyone’s enjoyment of the film.

      • http://www.sockpuppettheatre.com/ John Foley

        Exactly, because we all know what a saber-rattling jingoistic neocon Ben Affleck is. That guy’ll say and do anything to further the cause of American Imperialism!

        • chilisize

          Is this really about who Ben Affleck is or isn’t? You can’t accept that fudging facts may at times lead a viewer to have a less-than-gratifying experience at the movies?

          For example: Cinderella Man was a fantastic bit of storytelling and myth making that was a bit loose with the facts. By all appearances, Ron Howard is a great guy, and I’d say the body of work identifies him as a gifted filmmaker. But is it really time for “enough is enough!” theatrics if someone, be it a relative, a boxing fanatic, or a film critic finds the experience of the film spoiled by its portrayal of fighter Max Baer as a brutal villain, when he was known to have in fact been a mensch?

          It’s really possible to have enjoyed Argo more than O’Heir did and still recognize that he has a point.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=663669914 Sean Richardson

            Chili – I think, for me, the difference is that ‘Argo’ deliberately omitted certain facts that would’ve changed the focus of the story, but without actually changing the outcome or any of the characters. ‘Cinderella Man’ lied about a person in order to make the story fit into a nice convenient narrative box.

            “You can’t accept that fudging facts may at times lead a viewer to have a less-than-gratifying experience at the movies?”

            The reason I don’t get it is that, following this logic, the fact that Russell Crowe is playing a real person instead of just watching documentary footage of the real person would be significantly more distracting than finding out that one aspect of the movie didn’t happen precisely as depicted.

          • http://www.sockpuppettheatre.com/ John Foley

            For me to acknowledge Andrew O’Heir has a point would mean that I cared even a tiny bit that the changes made to ‘Argo’ affected my enjoyment of it. It would mean that on some small level I think this film should NOT win any awards because it wasn’t 100% faithful to the true story. I don’t feel that way at all, so no I don’t think he has a point. The real story behind ‘Argo’ is still pretty awesome but not *quite* as thrilling. There was no chase at the airport. They breezed right through security and flew back to the U.S. without incident. As I was watching the movie, I knew this chase sequence was made from whole cloth and I DIDN’T CARE.

            Movies are movies. Even the ones based on true stories are going to have some theatrical flourishes for dramatic purposes. I’m totally fine with this.

            ‘Cinderella Man’ is an extreme example, and I haven’t seen that movie. It sounds to me like Max Baer was indeed unfairly portrayed. But of course, if Ron Howard had just made up a composite character to be the evil antagonist boxer, wouldn’t people be criticizing him for that too?

            I watched ‘Argo’ and was completely engrossed. It’s a great piece of film making. Anyone who watched that movie and thought to themselves “man they better have gotten every single fact right or I’m writing a strongly-worded letter to somebody!” should probably just stick to documentaries from now on. Not the Michael Moore ones, either. Those aren’t nearly truthful enough.

            And yes, I do think it’s important to take Ben Affleck’s actual personality and political views into account. O’Heir makes the assertion that this movie’s “a fanciful tale designed to make us feel better about the decrepit, xenophobic and belligerent Cold War America of 1980 as it toppled toward the abyss of Reaganism…” If he really thinks that was Affleck’s intention, that’s insane.

          • chilisize

            O’Heir doesn’t object to Argo’s oscar worthiness because the film is not “100% faithful” to the events it’s based on, he objects because the effect of the changes render it a less than satisfying film, to him. If Argo wins, O’Heir’s response will naturally be, “I didn’t give it to them.”

          • http://www.sockpuppettheatre.com/ John Foley

            Just because you say that’s what the film was doing doesn’t make it so. You saying that yes indeed this is what Affleck’s doing doesn’t change the fact that you’re only stating YOUR opinion. I simply don’t agree with you. At all. I felt that Affleck went out of his way to show the Iranians had a considerable amount of justification for their hatred/distrust of America.

            The only “feel good” pro-America elements of the story were the parts where they wanted us to root for the innocent diplomats whose lives were being threatened. We wanted them to be rescued. That’s all I took away from it. Sorry if that felt like bellicose propaganda to you.

            Our foreign policy of the 1950s was not exactly depicted in glowing terms. Did you actually not notice the prologue which described the coup of 1953 or our sheltering of the Shah? Affleck spelled it out pretty clearly; we did some fucked-up things to this country in the past, now they’re retaliating.

            You make it sound like a fucking Ted Nugent concert.

          • chilisize

            No, I don’t make it sound like a fucking Ted Nugent concert (though Nugent would be tolerable if he just played guitar and kept his mouth shut).

            Y’all seem to think that there’s some important rule being broken if your fave movies get panned. It’s just silly.


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