When Movies Trade on Real Life; Do the makers of films claiming to be based on or inspired by real stories have an allegiance to the truth, or just to the art of storytelling?

UPDATED SEPTEMBER 3, 2013 9:59 PM

When Movies Trade on Real Life

DEBATERS

Being True Is Hard Work PAMELA KATZ, SCREENWRITER

One must be accurate about someone’s life. But if you don’t illuminate something essential about their life, work and personality, you fail to tell the truth.

From Little Truth, a Bigger Truth AISHA HARRIS, SLATE

Inventing most of its characters and plot lines, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” turns a benign life into a symbol of an epic struggle.

Manipulate History? So Did Shakespeare ROBERT B. TOPLIN, HISTORIAN

Cinematic historians exercise a good deal of artistic license because they make stories entertaining and understandable.

Filmmakers Have a Duty to Be Honest PAUL BYRNES, CRITIC

It’s foolish to assume no one will check a fact on the Internet. We all deserve a higher standard of truth.

A Blurred Line Between Fact and Fiction MOLLY HASKELL, CRITIC

Filmmakers need to have more faith in viewers, and viewers need to be more skeptical about filmmakers.

INTRODUCTION

This seems to be the year of the fact-based movie. After “Argo,” “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty“ dominated the Oscar buzz last year, more movies are based on or inspired by true stories. “Fruitvale Station” tells of the 2009 shooting of a young man by an Oakland transit officer and “Captain Phillips” will recount a merchant ship’s capture by Somali pirates. Other films out or coming out this year are based on the lives of Steve JobsJulian Assangeand Linda Lovelace. Often, in these films, accuracy is sacrificed for drama. But do the makers of films claiming to be based on or inspired by real stories have an allegiance to the truth, or just to the art of storytelling?

Being True Is Hard Work

Pamela Katz wrote “Hannah Arendt” with its director, Margarethe von Trotta. The two also collaborated on the movies “Rosenstrasse,” about a protest against a Nazi roundup of Jews, and “The Other Woman” about the Stasi, the East German secret police. She teaches screenwriting at New York University’s graduate film program at Tisch School of the Arts.

UPDATED SEPTEMBER 3, 2013, 6:06 PM

The director Margarethe von Trotta understood the challenge we would have in portraying the brilliant, maddening and enigmatic theorist Hannah Arendt.

“She’s a thinker,’ Margarethe warned me. “What will we show?”

One must be accurate about someone’s life. But if you don’t illuminate something essential about their life, work and personality, you fail to tell the truth.

Choosing to focus on Arendt’s confrontation with the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and the fury aroused by her observations, made it possible to portray much of the story visually: her attendance at Eichmann’s trial, and the arguments with friends and family as she constructed her thesis about the banality of evil. We had 300 hours of footage of Eichmann’s testimony and statements by Holocaust survivors.

But we also wanted to capture something essential about Arendt’s human condition. She was a woman whose life was defined by the exile she had suffered under Hitler. In witnessing the angry response to her articles in The New Yorker — where she dared to call Eichmann not a monster, but an average person who was “terrifyingly normal” — the audience is offered an intimate glimpse of Arendt’s profound fear of existential exile in America.

Since both thinking, and the desire to understand, came to the core of Arendt’s character and work, we were thus able to take the audience on a factually accurate journey towards the concept of the banality of evil, while simultaneously exploring the emotional complexity of a remarkable woman.

The facts of any life, of any story, must be honored. But they are like keys on a piano that can be played in a variety of ways until the melody captures the subject truthfully. One must be factually accurate about the important events of someone’s life, but if the film doesn’t illuminate something essential about their life, work and personality, then you have failed to tell the truth.

To understand her thinking and the effect it had, we worked equally hard to detail the perspective of her detractors. We wanted the audience to make up their own mind and to see Arendt’s public courage as well as her private pain and vulnerability.

We researched from 2004 to 2012, reading an enormous amount and meeting her friends and colleagues, most often with her biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, as well as Lotte Köhler and Jerome Kohn. Arendt was a prolific letter writer, and we read all of her lengthy correspondences, including with her husband, Heinrich Blücher, withMary McCarthy, her strongest supporter, and Martin Heidegger.

Liberties were taken with time frames (it is of course compressed) and geography (McCarthy was not always in town, as we have her). And in her final conversation with her mentor Kurt Blumenfeld, Arendt speaks lines she actually wrote to someone else. But because they were her most poetic expression of her deepest feelings, this climactic scene was the place where they had to be heard.

Finally, the speech she gives at the end of the movie was based largely upon Arendt’s own writings, but it is not a speech she actually gave. She spoke to students and others in response to the controversy, but these talks were not recorded. We listened to other speeches that were recorded to capture her public speaking style, but ultimately the actress, Barbara Sukowa, made it her own. It seems to have worked, since people sometimes tell Sukowa they were present when Arendt gave “that” speech.

But that, in a way, is also faithful to the truth.

From Little Truth, a Bigger Truth

Aisha Harris is a writer for Slate’s culture blog, Brow Beat. She is onTwitter.

SEPTEMBER 3, 2013

When we go to the movies to see a narrative that is “based on a true story,” certain expectations are set up. Audience members instinctively wonder how much of the film is true. Typically, only a small fraction of those viewers will be curious enough to seek out the real details afterward. The rest will likely take the story at face value, unaware of what sprung from the imagination of the filmmakers.

Inventing most of its characters and plot lines, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” turns a benign life into a symbol of an epic struggle.

While the publicity for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” says it is “inspired by a true story,” it is almost all fictional. A kernel of the life of its inspiration, the longtime White House butler Eugene Allen, is present within the script, but the dramatic tension is drawn almost entirely from imagined story lines and characters, in particular the butler’s rebellious, socially active son.

In inventing these characters, plot lines and tensions, the filmmakers turn an extraordinary, if benign, life into an epic symbol of the dichotomy between older, more passive black citizens and a younger, more radicalized generation during the mid-20th century.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and artists shouldn’t have to hew rigidly to the facts if there’s a different story they wish to tell and are truthful about the creative license they wield. The director, Lee Daniels, and the writer, Danny Strong, have been transparent about that.

Filmmaking, after all, is always acting upon some strains of artifice. But a film can still strike an honest chord amid the abundance of make-believe. “The Butler” achieves glimpses of such honesty on more than one occasion, thanks to some great performances. That’s why it can ring true with audiences, whether they know the full truth or not.

Manipulate History? So Did Shakespeare

Robert Brent Toplin is a professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and teaches at the University of Virginia. His books include “Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood” and “History by Hollywood.”

SEPTEMBER 3, 2013

When a movie excites debate because it deals with real people or historical events, critics often blast the filmmakers for manipulating evidence, leaving out important details, and inventing characters and situations. They complain that history from Hollywood is not “accurate.”

This is a silly argument based on inappropriate comparisons between standards of writing used by journalists and historians and the standards of presentation on stage and screen applied by dramatists and filmmakers. Because cinematic historians must communicate brief but entertaining and understandable stories, they usually exercise a good deal of artistic license.

Cinematic historians exercise a good deal of artistic license because they make stories entertaining and understandable.

Filmmakers compress time, collapse several figures into a few principal characters, and imagine dialogue when the historical record is inadequate. Kathryn Bigelow, director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” explained that her story had to represent 10 years of the intelligence work on Osama bin Laden in just two and a half hours. The movie’s central character, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) is modeled on a specific female analyst, but Maya’s activities also symbolize the work of hundreds of intelligence professionals.

Obviously, cinematic historians manipulate their stories (as did Shakespeare in his dramas about English kings and James Michener in several history-oriented novels). In filmmaking these dramatic liberties are taken for storytelling effect, and they do not necessarily reduce the production’s value.

For instance, in “The King’s Speech,” the Duke of York actually received assistance from a therapist a decade before the year depicted in the movie. Ben Affleck’s “Argo” features an invented scene near the end showing Iranian authorities chasing a plane as it lifts frightened Americans to safety.

Should nitpicking about these small adjustments detract from the filmmakers’ notable accomplishments in arousing viewers’ interest in the past?

Cinema delivers understanding by arousing a feeling for history. Through color, sound, lighting and other stimuli, movies inform us about experiences that are quite different from our own. “Saving Private Ryan” provides little information about the history of World War II, but it gives audiences a powerful emotional connection to the conduct of warfare. Two influential television miniseries of the 1970s, “Roots” and “Holocaust,” presented history in simplistic melodrama, populated with heroes and villains. Yet these productions excited wide-ranging discussions in America and abroad about the wrongs of slavery and prejudice.

A discussion of Hollywood’s treatment of the facts is always welcome. It is useful, however, to recognize that cinema often excites viewers’ curiosity about the past and arouses the public’s interest in reading history.

Filmmakers Have a Duty to Be Honest

Paul Byrnes is a senior film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald in Sydney.

SEPTEMBER 3, 2013

We all know that movies lie. We punish them by paying good money to consume those lies. In that sense, audiences are complicit.

‘‘You can’t handle the truth,’’ as Jack Nicholson famously bawled in “A Few Good Men.” That does not mean that the film industry can afford to ignore the question of veracity, especially when its marketers so love that debased label ‘‘based on a true story.”

It’s foolish to assume no one will check a fact on the Internet. We all deserve a higher standard of truth.

If movies want to retain, or regain, some of the power they once had in world culture, they could start by accepting that all art, including cinema, has a duty to the truth, even if it’s just in an emotional sense. The great filmmakers know this and respect it.

Assuming that nobody will check a fact in the age of Wikipedia and the Internet makes them look stupider than us. It’s never been easier to call Hollywood out on its omissions and commissions. Every year, debate erupts about exactly this: Kathryn Bigelow and “Zero Dark Thirty,” step forward. Of course no one agrees on what the truth is. That’s why it’s so important to go after it.

Scriptwriters argue that the truth is inconvenient, especially when it comes to dramatic structure. The modern movie script adheres to strict rules about when things should happen. When a movie costs north of $200 million, history is the first to die on the beach. “God writes lousy theater,” it has been said.

And yet, great films are made every year in which those rules are broken and difficult facts survive, even with big budgets. Scriptwriters can stick to an interpretation of what is known, as Tony Kushner did with “Lincoln,” and still make an entertaining movie. The subsequent argument about how many votes Lincoln turned in Connecticut or Delaware missed the point. Those of us who want our stories straight should have rejoiced at the efforts that Steven Spielberg and Kushner made to tell the story of Honest Abe without betraying the known sources. In a sense, they were forced to by a realization that Lincoln holds a place so dear in American hearts as to deserve a higher standard from filmmakers.

Doesn’t everybody?

A Blurred Line Between Fact and Fiction

Molly Haskell is an author and film critic. Her book “My Brother My Sister: Story of a Transformation” will be published next month.

SEPTEMBER 3, 2013

Critics and moviegoers may disagree on the moment when a historical drama takes one liberty too many, when recreations “based on a true story” leave truth too far behind. But these breaches have become ever more prevalent in a cinema that, like current literature, is in love with memoir and reportage, and increasingly draws stories from history and current event.

Filmmakers need to have more faith in viewers, and viewers need to be more skeptical about filmmakers.

Unreliability is the axiom of our digital age. Truth has morphed into truthiness, facts into factoids, people photoshop themselves on the social media and movies can fake almost anything with computer-generated imagery. Is there still a line to be drawn, or have truth and fiction blurred irretrievably?

The moment you introduce a writer, a director, and actors—especially actors who put their personal stamp and coloring on everything they touch — you’re in the land of make-believe. To the consternation of purists, moviemakers will collapse four different characters — say a team of intelligence experts — into a single screen protagonist. It’s part of the visual shorthand of movies, as is rendering the screen incarnation of an actual person more attractive than the model — a device characteristic of the “biopic.”

The question then becomes how compelling, how convincing is the portrayal (see Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher or Julia Childs; Robert de Niro as Jake La Motta; Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles). Cary Grant was absurd as Cole Porter in “Night and Day,” while Sally Field was superb as Norma Rae (though criticized by literalists for being thinner and prettier than the actual union leader).

Whitewashing a subject whether out of reverence or political correctness generally only reduces its complexity. Actors playing live or familiar celebrities (Hillary Clinton, Steve Jobs) are likely to run into more resistance than the fictionalized versions of the dead or obscure (Linda Lovelace, Eugene Allen).

The matter of whether the omissions and distortions serve a higher purpose must be decided on a case by case basis, and by each viewer. As a general proposition, I would accept Tony Kushner’s defense of having Connecticut’s congressmen, who opposed slavery, voting against the 13th Amendment in “Lincoln.”

“We adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama,’’ he wrote, “which is what ‘Lincoln’ is.”

But this is a film that will be used as an educational tool in schools, and a story as inherently suspenseful as any in our national history. Do we really need extra shots of adrenaline? I’d say the same of the ridiculously pumped-up ending of “Argo.”

What we really need is a little more faith in viewers from filmmakers. And a little more skepticism on the part of viewers.

These are issues that make for lively argument, and for supplemental fact-checking we can rely on an army of ever-alert Internet bloggers. We can hope they pick up on significant historical inaccuracies instead of merely homing in such gotcha! fodder as the anachronistic hair styles and excessively white teeth of French revolutionaries. Or Daniel Day Lewis’s pierced ear.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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