It has been mentioned elsewhere on this blog that All the President’s Men is one of my favorite films as well as one of my formative film watching experiences. Not only is my love for journalism wrapped up in that film, but my penchant for films based on true stories.
Always a popular concept in Hollywood, there’s been a recent uptick in the number of movies (and movies doing well at the box office) based on true events or true stories.
Last year, Zero Dark Thirty came under harsh scrutiny not only for its portrayal of torture methods used during the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but whether the events in the film actually occurred. At the beginning of the film, a title car states: “This film is based on first hand accounts of actual events.”
What that actual meant was scrutinized by critics and politicians alike. Some thought the film’s screenwriter Mark Boal was trying to have it both ways. He claimed the film was based on research—research he conducted at the CIA and elsewhere about the sequence of events —but also claimed it was a fictional film because the characters in the film were composites. In other words, when writing the screenplay, he used artistic license.
The idea of artistic license has been around since the time of Shakespeare, but is still being debated, as is evidenced by a recent The New York Times‘ Room for Debate topic, “When Movies Trade On Real Life.” The question posed was whether filmmakers of fact-based films being released should honor the truth (the real, literal history of an event) or choose good storytelling (the freedom to use artistic license in a fact-based film.)
Despite historical inaccuracies and exaggerations in other Oscar nominated films such as Argo and Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty endured most of the controversy last awards season. It will be interesting to see whether any controversy bubbles up around fact-based award contenders this fall.
Fruitvale Station – Based on the true story of a young man Oscar Grant, the film focuses on the last couple days of Grant’s life before he was shot and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California.
The film is by first-time director Ryan Coogler and stars Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant and Octavia Spencer as Wanda, Oscar’s mother. It premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and was released in theaters in July. Maybe it will take after a previous summer release, The Hurt Locker, and gain some recognition by the Oscar nominating committee come January.
While most critics praised the film, there were a few who criticized the portrayal of Oscar Grant and the events surrounding his death. Forbes critic Kyle Smith said Coogler omitted information and made up scenes in the film.
Although there are a number of fact-based films out there, it seems that particularly topical films in this arena, such as Zero Dark Thirty and Fruitvale Station are often under more scrutiny than those movies which are fact-based, but depict a historical event that happened more than ten years ago (Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave).
The Butler – Inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, the film stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a butler who is an eyewitness to over 30 years of history in the White House.
Released by The Weinsten Company and directed by Lee Daniels, who helmed the 2010 Oscar-nominated film Precious, The Butler opened in August to positive reviews and has grossed over $90 million at the box office.
The Grandmaster – Inspired by the real life of the Wing Chun kung fu grandmaster, Ip Man, the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Financed by Annapurna Pictures, a production and financing company which has been the backing behind several nominated films that were otherwise unable to get support from a studio (last year’s included The Master and Zero Dark Thirty.)
12 Years a Slave – Based on an autobiography by Solomon Northup. Northup was a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Directed by Shame helmer Steve McQueen and backed by Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, the film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last week and is playing at the Toronto Film Festival currently. It’s already receiving rave reviews for its lead Chiwetel Ejiofor and creating buzz around Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a fellow plantation slave. The film opens October 18.
The Fifth Estate – A drama focusing on the story behind WikiLeaks and its creator Julian Assange. The film focuses on the falling out between Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his WikiLeaks colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). Bill Condon (Chicago) directs. The film played at Toronto this past weekend and received mostly mixed reviews. It opens wide October 18.
Captain Phillips – The film refers to itself as a “biopic” of Captain Richard Phillips whose ship, the Maersk Alabama, was taken hostage by Somali pirates in a 2009 hijacking. Tom Hanks plays the title character and the film is directed by Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy, United 93, Green Zone.) It opens October 11.
The Wolf of Wall Street – Based on Wall Street baron Jordan Belfort’s memoirs, star Leonardo DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese team up again for this black comedy. Belfort was a stockbroker who founded his own brokerage in his late twenties. It’s yet to be seen if DiCaprio and Scorsese can duplicate the magic they had with The Departed and this looks to be a very different style of film. Opens November 15.
- Toronto: ’12 Years a Slave’ makes a devastating impression, with Oscar nominations a certainty (insidemovies.ew.com)
- Which Film Will Get An Oscars Boost at the Toronto Film Festival 2013? (contactmusic.com)
- Mike Hogan: Is The Oscar Race ALREADY Over? (huffingtonpost.com)