Based On A True Story: What biopics get right

In the last five years, four of the five Oscar winners for Best Picture were films based on true stories, otherwise known as biopics. This year alone, four of the eight contenders in this category came from biopics, as did four of the five Best Actors and two Best Actresses. In fact, every year since 2003 either the Best Actor or Best Actress (and sometimes both) has been awarded to a performer in a film based on a true story.

There’s a think piece to be written about why we are so hungry for such stories right now, what it is we find those films uniquely able to offer us. But of late the bigger question has been what it is that studios mean when they describe a film as “based on a true story.” The 2012 Oscar nominee “Zero Dark Thirty” showed American interrogators getting valuable information about the location of Osama bin Laden by means of torture. That never happened. The 2010 multi-Oscar winner “The Social Network” was built on the premise that Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook to punish/win back a girl. Also not true.

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This Oscar season was a forest fire of similar conflicts, with “Selma,” “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game” and “Foxcatcher” all facing significant criticism over their accuracy. What constitutes a legitimate expectation of accuracy in a movie? Can a “true story” not be totally accurate and yet in a fundamental sense still be considered true? How do we evaluate such things?

For the last year I have been trying to outline a screenplay based on the autobiography of St. Ignatius Loyola. But the problem is that Ignatius’ life does not fit easily into the classic three-act structure of a movie. Indeed his story is almost two different tales, one about his life before he met up with Francis Xavier and company in Paris, and one about his life after that.

I suspect most producers will say, cut to Paris as quick as you can. But in some ways the most important moments of Ignatius’ journey happened earlier, when he was alone on the road having visions, screaming in monasteries, giving self-mortification a bad name and hallucinating snakes. So what do I include? What do I lose?

On television you have hours upon hours to get to know a character, to lay out events, to take a journey with him or her. In a movie, you have 90 to 180 minutes. With that kind of time, there is no way you could possibly capture “the whole” of a person or event. You have to think about uncovering the essence.

That is not to say just anything can be altered or cut. Again, see “Zero Dark Thirty” or this year’s “American Sniper,” which has faced some similar criticism for representing an Iraq War sniper as noble, “saving lives” and “just doing his job” without ever giving a nod to the larger point that the U.S. justification for his “job” was a complete fabrication. So he was saving American lives (and destroying Iraqi ones) that should never have been put at risk.

Sometimes, though, what is more surprising about a biopic is how much can be changed without complaint. “The Theory of Everything,” about the lives of Stephen and Jane Hawking, has received enormous positive response and multiple Oscar nominations. And yet this film about the most important scientific thinker since Einstein has no time for his work. Instead, the film focuses solely on Stephen and Jane’s relationship. And people adore it.

Even so, biopics get made only because artists and studios are so moved by the stories of real people that they are willing to put in the five, six or seven years it will take to share them. But no matter how committed creators might be to accuracy, they always also have a responsibility to their story.

Films are not meant to substitute for textbooks. They are first and foremost stories, the product of artistic craft. Include every fact and detail, and you may be “true” in the sense of accurate, but you’ll almost certainly be boring. No; when it comes to film, it’s always about getting to the deep and fertile core of a person or event, about offering not a history lesson but a moment of encounter, an opportunity to “meet” them.

These threads of accuracy and art found themselves most at odds this past season in “Selma,” a film by the writer Paul Webb and director Ava DuVerney about protests led by African-Americans in 1965 to achieve voting rights in the South. Since its release the film has faced unexpectedly vigorous criticism on questions of accuracy.

And yet, it is not its portrayal of the marches that brought it trouble, nor its take on Martin Luther King Jr., African-Americans in Selma or even the viciousness of their white opponents. No; the furor has been over its presentation of President Lyndon B. Johnson. In the film, L.B.J. is a harried, to some extent impotent figure who tries to tamp down King’s efforts lest they derail Johnson’s war on poverty legislation. It’s a strange performance. By all accounts, the real L.B.J. was outsized, endlessly colorful, a political genius; but the actor Tom Wilkinson’s version of the man lists like a middle manager. He is cardboard, and he turns on King in a nasty way. Historians who have liked the film otherwise have noted that L.B.J. was much more supportive of King’s actions at Selma.

The thing is, this film is not about Johnson; he is not even the main obstacle. In some ways “Selma” is not even a film about King. Time and again DuVernay and Webb make the unusual choice to turn the lens away from the big names to watch the ordinary people around them—the people of Selma, who risk everything just so they can vote. And in doing so, these artists uncover truth that most films of this sort, focused on some great woman or man, never approach: the courage and vulnerability, the humanity at the heart of this great moment.

It is unfortunate that the film has the flaw that it does. I wonder whether that choice emerged out of a desire to heighten the sense of impossibility facing the protesters. But flawed though it is, there is also no doubt that at its core, “Selma” shares a profound truth.

Storytelling is predicated on a willing suspension of disbelief. But with that suspension always comes a risk of being led into places you do not want to be or, in the case of biopics, into information that is just not right. In the case of a film like “The Theory of Everything” or “The Social Network,” the potential harm is relatively slight. In other films, like “Zero Dark Thirty,” there is actual danger, because the stories we tell ourselves teach us things. Even as adults, they form our imaginations and guide our consciences.

We do not always need those stories to be entirely accurate. Choosing small bits to represent larger wholes is practically unavoidable. But in another sense, we certainly do need those stories to be true.

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