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Enough Is Enough: "Based on a True Story" Doesn't Mean "100% True Story"

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 1.26.52 PM


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?