On the topic of films “based on true stories/events”

“[…] any time you hear the words ‘based on a true story,’ that’s usually a translation for ‘We bought the rights to this story, took out the boring parts, then made up just about everything else.'” — Bill Simmons

“I don’t think the movie should be more important than the truth.” — Greg Paspatis

“History is written by the victors.” — Winston Churchill

So I was going to talk about the film All the Money in the World, but I’ve failed to come up with enough content to make it a worthwhile review entry. I’ve been stuck with writer’s block over the past few weeks (that, and I’ve been working longer job hours, dealing with the flu, trying to complete projects so I can review them on this site but get side-tracked by something, plus plain old procrastination), so I’ve been struggling to get back on this site and post some new content. But believe me, once I get a couple of these “projects” out of the way, I’ll get my groove back in no time. These are projects I intend to make a post about.

But anyway, after seeing the above mentioned film, it got me thinking about another topic I’ve been wanting to discuss for a while now, a topic that came up after seeing Hidden Figures, and revisiting a childhood favorite of mine, Remember the Titans. Movies based on true stories/events. In the past, I never really made that much of a deal over films like these. After all, as I’ve been told in the past, “it’s just a movie”. No need to make a big deal about it, no need to bitch about it, just simply enjoy it or don’t, and leave it at that. The thing is though, I’ve learned over the past couple years that the “it’s just a movie” argument is bullshit. That’s like saying the novel 1984, or A Clockwork Orange, or Animal Farm, “is just a book.” Because, as I’ll demonstrate, there are things going on that make it clear that it’s more than just a movie.

Remember the Titans is the main movie that pushed me into wanting to discuss this topic. Now after rewatching this movie, I should make one thing clear. It is a good movie for the most part. It’s well-made, well-paced, well-acted, and tells an inspirational story of a town and a football team becoming de-segregated, learning to live/work together, and overcoming their differences. An underdog team that struggles to win every game, just as they struggle to work together as a team because of their differences in color, and lead by a black coach with a white assistant coach (the latter moving down from lead to assistant) who would be the main man responsible for getting them to overcome their differences, even if his methods are harsh (there’s a method to his madness).

The problem I had with the film before doing any research (actually, this is partly what led me to do some research on it) was with Denzel Washington’s character Herman Boone. Virtually every other character has a flaw of some kind with their character and/or motivation. Because when it comes to films, flaws are the main things I look for in characters, because flaws are what make characters interesting, and human, and therefore relate-able. But not Boone. Everything he does is right and with good intention, and there is no other way to properly do it other than his way. The one time the film acted like it was challenging this notion was when he cracked down on Petey (a black player on the football team) for fumbling the ball or missing a catch or something like that, so he kicks him off the field, which makes Petey even more depressed and losing confidence. But the white assistant Bill Yoast coach consoles him, and lets him run on defense where he does a good job. After this, the coaches confront each other, and Boone somehow convinces Yoast that Yoast is doing more harm than good, because this undermines his methods and leadership with bringing the team together and getting wins.

You challenged my authority in front of the entire football team. You think you’re doing these boys a favor taking them aside every time I come down on them, protecting them from ‘big bad Boone,’ you’re cutting my legs from under me.

[…]

Now I may be a mean cuss, but I’m the same mean cuss to everybody out there on that football field. The world don’t give a damn about how sensitive these kids are, especially the young black kids. You ain’t doing these kids a favor by patronizing them, you’re crippling them.

Later on in the film, after that response from Boone.

Coach Boone: I don’t know mama, maybe Yost was right. Maybe I pushed him too hard.

Carol Boone: Gary had an accident. Sometimes life’s just hard, for no reason at all.

Coach Boone: Do you think I was blinded by my own ambition?

Carol Boone: Whatever kind of ambition it took to do what you did around here, this world could use a lot more of it Herman.

Now you see, the film just stole a moment that could’ve been used to point out a flaw in his character. Instead, the best we get is a brief moment of self-doubt, which is overtaken by the whole, “It doesn’t matter how much your ambition blinded you, it was all for a good cause that is still working wonders.” But I couldn’t just bash on a perfect character if I didn’t know more about the real-life Boone. So I researched, and what I found isn’t pretty.

First, the message and the team itself. Aside from a made-up character and different hair-styles, and a few liberties taken here and there (such as stating the arguably the best player on the team, Gerry Bertier, was in an auto-accident prior to the finals game as opposed to after, in reality), pretty much the entire movie is full of shit when it comes to the “true story” aspect. The message of the film was done at a huge expense when it came to the segregation status of the town(s) and the team(s). The film portray’s the status of society in general by having the Titans as the only team with blacks and whites playing on it, while in reality just about every team was doing that during that time period. The events of this film took place in 1971; the integration of mixed races in schools and such took place in 1965, when black/civil rights was at its peak. Granted, there was still some racial tensions, but from what I understand, it was exaggerated to a significant degree in the film (sounds a bit similar to what the news and some speakers are doing nowadays). Not to mention that the team was not an underdog team in any way shape or form. They dominated the high school football competition throughout that whole year, crushing the opposition, and even running away with the final game of the season. But the film needed tension, and those inconvenient facts would’ve taken away from that. So rather than have the film take place during the mid-60s, they just changed a lot of history to make the film more interesting.

But I know what you’re thinking. “This is petty, and not all that significant since it isn’t exactly harming anyone or anything today.” Well, one would think so, if not for Herman Boone (the real life individual). The only thing the film got right about him was his harsh methods of training and yelling at other players. What the film got wrong was the “method to the madness” mindset, that he had good intentions at heart, and was a nice guy once you got to know him. That couldn’t be further from the truth apparently, as in reality, pretty much everyone, black and white players, hated his rotten guts. In fact, in 1977 (6 years after the events of the film), “Boone left his coaching job in disgrace following a player mutiny, the very public defection of several assistants, and accusations of verbal and physical abuse.” On top of that, after this film was released, he re-invented his image, selling himself as the character portrayed by Denzel, which wasn’t at all how he was back in that time period. He goes on to make speeches at universities here and there, getting paid for these speeches, and selling this story of a coach who’s righteous efforts unified divided racial lines. It’s not only a lie, but a lie that liars are profiting off of, both in Hollywood and by at least one individual living the lie Disney got others to believe because of this one movie. On top of that, it’s also a lie that Barack Obama bought into, as he stated in 2008 during his presidential campaign when he made a speech at the high school gym. If a movie like this can have an impact like that, then clearly it’s more than just a movie. In fact, you can still contact Boone and have him booked in a speaking event at this website: https://www.apbspeakers.com/speaker/herman-boone

Now, with that being said, I believe this is the worst case of a fictionalized account of history having such an impact in real-life. Of course there are plenty of other movies based on true events that take liberties for the sake of dramatic effect, sometimes for other reasons. Sometimes the intentions are good. For instance, I doubt any of the writers for Remember the Titans had any ill-intent when making this film, despite making it far more fiction than reality-based. They just wanted to tell a story of coming together despite racial differences, and put it on the backdrop of a real-life event to make it more grounded and relate-able. It just wound up having those consequences as a (likely) unintended effect of rewriting history for the film. And that is ultimately why I am highly skeptical of any film that claims to be based on true stories today; even a lie with good intentions can lead to distasteful outcomes. Granted, all films like this should be taken with a grain of salt, but not everyone is always willing to fact-check this stuff. Some only get their information for the actual event from the film itself, which usually isn’t the smartest thing to do.

So when I went to see the more recent film (at the time of this writing) based on a true story, All the Money in the World, I also took this with a grain of salt. And after watching the film, I went and did my research on the fact vs. fiction element. And it seems, for the most part, the film generally stayed true. Of course, it did take liberties here and there, such as making up a lot of shit for the finale for the sake of dramatic flair, and also fictionalizing escape attempts by the grandson while he was still held captive. But from what I understand, it stayed true to the billionaire’s character, his motives, etc. Whalberg’s character is a bit on the glorified side, and I believe the mother is portrayed as slightly more heroic than she was in reality (but this is mainly due to the finale which stretches things too far). The film runs a tad too long (which I think is a bit on the side of irony considering that Ridley Scott believes Blade Runner 2049 also runs too long). There were some scenes that could’ve been left out entirely, and they really could have trimmed the last 30 minutes down considerably.


The liberties taken in that film were done mostly for the sake of tension (none of which worked in my opinion, particularly for the finale and this one scene where the mother had to identify a body), and to let some themes regarding how “all the money in the world cannot buy you happiness” to be enhanced, and to make the mother more of a heroin (not to be confused with the drug overdose the real-life son took after the events in the film which left him permanently handicapped and dependent until his dying day). Overall, the changes seem relatively harmless to me, though the mother is portrayed as someone who is a bit on the flawless (warning, warning).

But then there are films which take liberties for reasons that don’t have much to do with dramatic flair, tension, or themes. These are liberties which are much more devious, and liberties like these have been taken ever since, well, at least since the silent film Birth of a Nation. Altering elements of history for the sake of pushing forth a political/societal/ethical message. Birth of a Nation portrayed the KKK as sympathetic, and black people as monsters. That was back then. Today, it seems to be a bit of a reversal. Not that the KKK is ever going to be a sympathetic organization mind you, nuh-uh. It’s more subtle than something like that.

Take the film Marshall for instance, about the guy who would soon go on to become the first black supreme court justice. The film portray’s Marshall’s lawyer, Sam Friedman, as “a novice trial lawyer who was insecure without Thurgood Marshall present.” From what I understand, this is false, and the exact opposite of what this lawyer was in real life. So why change his character like this? To make the character of Marshall seem stronger and more independent by comparison. It portrayed Marshall as the one who was the architect of the case as opposed to his lawyer. To make the real-life Marshall more famous? No, to make a black person superior in intellect to a white person.

I take issue more with mis-characterization than I do with making up plot points. Because in film, it’s characters that are primarily responsible for drawing the audience in, to be a villain, protagonist, interest, like-able or unlike-able, someone to admire or not to admire, etc. Because characters can be role models. Because characters are what people become fans of, especially at conventions like Comic-Con and whatnot (granted, haven’t seen a comic/anime/game character/race that’s based in reality that many would love to model themselves after, even during Halloween, but the point still stands). Characters are what viewers tend to pay tribute to, or to model themselves after, or wish to even seek out in real life, assuming they’re still alive, otherwise visit their grave site.

Of course, plots can overblow the characters too. Sure an actor portraying a real-life individual can act as that individual would most likely act in a fictional situation, like Abraham Lincoln when he went hunting vampires and zombies, I guess. But that’s an example of a situation that everyone knows (I would hope) is fictional. But what of situations that are more grounded in reality? For instance, American Sniper. Once Kyle headed over to the Middle East, not much of what is shown in the film ends up being factual, not even the 1 mile shot (he did kill a target one mile away, just not the same target shown in the movie). Granted, the film didn’t really do anything all that out of character or outside the broad scope of what the sniper did in reality, but it becomes questionable at times as to why they would change things, even for dramatic flair (I honestly can’t really figure it out with that movie; the intentions don’t seem particularly devious, yet they don’t seem to help either).

Films like Pearl Harbor though, a factual event filled with some fictional characters (as far as I know), and even then they botch the event up. I know this for a fact because, at a history class session in middle school many years ago, we were visited by WWII vets who were at Pearl Harbor, and they expressed dismay over that movie. They pretty much said, “Go watch Tora Tora Tora! instead.” And funnily enough, even that film, as fact-based as it is, has some issues regarding historical accuracy in a couple of parts, mainly with a couple of the scenes from the Japanese perspective, which was filmed by a Japanese director, who had creative control over the screenwriting for those scenes. So they intentionally altered some lines here and there to change the motivations a bit, to make the Japanese a bit more justified in their attack. Not that America isn’t much better in that regard when it comes to many of their films made during the Cold War era, in regards to how Russians are. Based on a true story or not, most of the films back then tended to vilify Russia beyond the scope of reality (except for Stalin, ’cause that guy was an asshole). In any case, the plot/events were altered in those types of films for the sake of propaganda and patriotism. Pretty sure other countries outside the U.S. are guilty of the exact same thing, maybe even more-so.

On that note, there’s that movie Ip Man starring Donnie Yen. That film is about as far removed from the true story of the famed martial artist who trained Bruce Lee as it can get. Like how his profession, when he wasn’t doing martial arts, was being a policeman. He wasn’t put into any fights for the sake of gaining food to eat, nor did he fight against a Japanese martial artist in front of a large crowd, as portrayed in the film’s finale (although I have heard similar to that incident did happen with another famed Chinese martial artist during that time period, just not Ip Man). Pretty much done to make the famed martial artist more larger than life than he actually was, and to put some pro-Chinese anti-Japanese messaging in the film (though in all fairness, the Japanese did some really damn despicable stuff to the Chinese during WWII; just irritating when they make up fiction to point out that fact).

Then there are films that aren’t “based” on true stories so much as they claim to be documenting true stories. Documentaries. Unfortunately, even though those types of films claim to be fact based and show facts, even they have a habit of altering the facts, or leaving some out to put characters/events in a different context. Like fat fuck Michael Moore and his Fahrenheit 9/11 movie, doing everything possible to make George Bush look bad, pointing out stuff that was true, but also filling the film up with loads of wild groundless speculation, inaccurate facts, and cowshit, as I covered in a review I made a while back. And then there’s Hillary: The Movie, done by Citizens United. Now don’t get me wrong, I hate Hillary as much as the next reasonable person out there who has their facts straight, and the movie has a decent number of stuff against her. But there are a couple things the film brings up against her that aren’t entirely accurate, or at the very least taken out of context. If you’re going to bash someone, you had better make sure you’ve got your facts straight, otherwise you become an easy target for anyone willing to do a decent amount of research. I pointed out similar issues with that film 13th, which makes the claim that black people are treated more unfairly than white people when it comes to the criminal justice system, but makes those claims by skewing facts or, again, taking them out of context. And don’t even get me started with that propaganda film An Inconvenient Truth. Plenty of other blogs/reviewers have torn that film to shreds, along with its sequel.

Now, all this doesn’t mean I endorse the stopping of watching movies based on true stories or documentaries altogether. On the contrary. Even if these films are historically inaccurate, people are drawn to these films for the same reason they are advertised. Because their basis in reality makes them interesting, that the stories and characters are likely found in reality is fascinating. That the films can bring attention to the events covered, which should then encourage viewers to do their own research on the topic to see how grounded in reality (or not) the film actually is. It’s an opportunity for learning from both the film and from critiquing it. If one approaches a “based on truth” film with that attitude, then I doubt there would be much problems with it, like there is/was with that fucking Herman Boone character. I did the same thing after watching films like 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Pain & Gain, The Lost City of Z, and with pretty much all the others listed above. Consider films like this as an opportunity to learn some history, in the smart way. Never take films at face-value when it comes to stuff like this. Assume they lie about certain things, and seek to verify the facts. After all, do these films not wish to have attention brought to the event(s) being portrayed?

But you know… Re-writing history isn’t always bad so long as you have fun with it, and everyone knows you’re having fun with it. For instance, everyone knows Hitler wasn’t killed by getting filled up with lead at point blank range by an automatic rifle, yet that didn’t stop Tarantino from making it so in Inglorious Basterds. Everyone (who’s had some form of a decent education) knows that this is false, but also knows this is being done in good fun for the sake of entertainment, and it’s not intentionally trying to alter history. It’s just being entertaining. Even people on youtube (at least in the past before YouTube became a bunch of pissy censorship-ridden video-take-down-a-thon assholes) had fun re-writing history in a similar way by making “alternate endings” to movies. Everyone knows these fan-made alternate endings are, well, fan-made, and done with a sense of humor.

 

 

PS: Please, I’m beggin’ ya.  Watch the Predator alternate ending video above.

3 thoughts on “On the topic of films “based on true stories/events”

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