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By Andrew L. Urban

Films ‘based on a true story’ have great appeal and the new year brings a new batch; but as the respected Sydney Morning Herald film critic (and one time director of the Sydney Film Festival) Paul Byrnes points out in a lengthy feature (SMH December 29-30, 2012), “the words ‘based on a true story’ may be the most debased currency in movies.” Before we rush to judgement on this, we should pause to think about the importance of different elements of a ’true story’ (in the context of telling them on screen).

For example, the massively popular French film, The Intouchables (released Oct. 25, 2012) is based on the true story of a wealthy Parisian whose paragliding accident has left him disabled. He hires a new carer – in real life a young Arab off the streets, in the movie a young black off the streets. The story remains authentic, though, because it’s about the relationship formed and how each changed the other. It’s not about Arabs and Parisians; it’s about a POOR, disadvantaged man and a privileged man forging bonds and learning from each other. The commercial reason for the racial switch is understandable: Omar Sy who plays the black carer is a popular comedian/actor in France. The fact he delivers an outstanding performance helps.

The ESSENTIAL truth of the story remains intact.

"two significant biographical works"

In the next two months Australian audiences will have the opportunity to see two significant biographical works: Hitchcock (opens this week, Jan. 10) and Lincoln (Feb. 7). Gangster Squad also opens this week, a crime thriller set in late 1940s Los Angeles based on the under cover police war against the ambitious and vicious criminal Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Compliance (Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Jan. 17; Dendy Newtown, Sydney, Jan. 24) is based on a 2004 incident: Sandra (Ann Dowd), a highly-strung fast-food restaurant manager, receives a phone call from a police officer who says that a young employee, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer. Commencing an investigation as she keeps control of a busy restaurant, Sandra follows instructions from the policeman no matter how invasive they become.

The Impossible (Jan. 24) and Zero Dark Thirty (Jan. 31) take us through dramatic events of recent history; in the former, the natural disaster of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand, the latter the long hunt for Osama bin Laden and its dramatic finale. The Imposter (Feb. 28) is a superior documentary and subtle, partial re-enactment of yet another version of the bizarre and oft-recurring story about the reappearance of a person long gone and believed dead (eg The Return of Martin Guerre [1982], The Changeling [2008])

As with The Intouchables, in The Impossible there is a switch, in this case from the real family who were Spanish, to an Anglo family, even though the film is a Spanish production, with Spaniard Juan Antonio Bayona directing. But the parents in the family of five are both played by well known English speaking actors: Naomi Watts (Australian) and Ewan McGregor (Scottish). Here too, the essential elements of the story are retained; the essence of the story isn’t about the family being Spanish, the enduring story is the survival of a family through a terrifying natural disaster and how it impacted on them. Again, the switch is made for commercial reasons. Does it destroy the authenticity of the story?

"truths that no-one knows"

Then there are truths that no-one knows, such as how exactly Abraham Lincoln sounded or what exact words he used in his conversations, private or otherwise. Here’s how the filmmakers explain their process of putting Lincoln on the screen:

“While [screenwriter Tom] Kushner utilized his decade of exhaustive research and plucked many real phrases from historical records for the characters, much of what he wrote came from a mix of research and imagination. “One of the great things about this story is that we know that these events occurred but we don’t know very much about what was said, so that gave me a certain amount of license and I was glad to have it. Writing this screenplay was, as it could only be, an act of interpretation,” he summarizes. 

“That was part of the script’s beauty,” says director Stephen Spielberg. “Tony immersed himself in the language of the period, and then recaptured it in his own way. It became a hybrid of historical research and Tony’s remarkable artistry with language.”

Of playing Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis says, “ .. reading accounts of a life can only take you so far, and what became even more interesting to me at a certain point was trying to grow towards a subjective understanding of Lincoln’s personal experience. And in that, the legacy of his writing was hugely important. You get such a wonderful sense of him not only in his speeches but in the stories he told.” 

In Hitchcock, Helen Mirren plays Alfred’s wife, Alma; the mousy Alma would be thrilled. Is it a lie to represent Alma in this glamourised way? And if so, does it alter the essential truth of her support for and useful assistance to Hitch?

Controversially in Zero Dark Thirty, ‘enhanced interrogation’ (read waterboarding torture) by the CIA appears to have helped deliver information that led to locating Osama bin Laden. Officials say that wasn’t the case. They would say that, though … both assertions are made within political agendas. There is also a fusing of characters to portray the determined CIA Agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain) who stays on the trail for a decade. 

"sincerely intent on authentically re-telling"

What I am trying to show here is that some filmmakers are sincerely intent on authentically re-telling stories based on a true story, even if the film version is not 100% accurate. What is reprehensible filmmaking is using a powerful and appealing true story as the basis for a film, using that source as a badge of truth only to subvert important/essential elements of it to suit cinematic needs – without removing the boast that’s it’s true.

Of course it’s always dangerous to claim to know the truth; as the old saying has it, there are three sides to every story; yours, mine and the facts.

Yet as Irish film critic and noted creator of The Story of Film puts it, cinema can use a lie to tell a truth. But cinema should never use truth to tell a lie.

FOOTNOTE: One aspect of Argo that has been denounced as demonstrably UNtrue is that the British Ambassador turned away the fugitive American diplomats. The British Embassy took them in and they were moved only when the Embassy became exposed to attack – as one of the Americans, Robert Anders, has corroborated. As for the disputed torture claims, director Kathryn Bigelow in defence that it’s ‘just a movie’. But filmmakers can’t have it both ways: the claim ‘based on a true story’ should be qualified with an advisory (like rating classifications), eg ‘but not always factual’ or ‘with artistic licence’ or even ‘except the bit about the Brits turning them away ‘.

Published January 10, 2013

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Andrew L. Urban

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