If you’ve been paying attention to movies this fall, you already know that a larger than usual number of new releases either have been based on or inspired by true stories.
First the movies that may already be playing at theaters near you:
— Secretariat. Diane Lane stars in an inspirational story about the famous racehorse that won the coveted Triple Crown in 1973. (Recommended)
— Social Network. Director David Fincher examines the early career of genius entrepreneur and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Highly recommended)
— Nowhere Boy. John Lennon’s early years in Liverpool put two women at odds with each other – Lennon’s mother and the aunt with whom he lived. (Recommended)
— Conviction. Betty Anne Waters, a waitress who put herself through law school, staged an epic battle to free her brother Kenny, an undisciplined young man sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. (Recommended)
And still to come…..
—127 Hours. Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) tells the story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a young hiker whose arm was caught behind a fallen rock during a solo hike in Utah. (Opens in New York and Los Angeles next week and in some areas on Nov. 12.)
— Unstoppable. Director Tony Scott directs Denzel Washington in a thriller about a runaway train. (Opens Nov. 12)
— Fair Game. Remember Valerie Plame, the CIA agent, whose identity was exposed in 2003, setting off a scandal within the Bush administration? Naomi Watts portrays her in a new political thriller. (Opens on Nov. 5.)
— The King’s Speech. Colin Firth plays the stuttering George VI in a movie that has garnered much praise on the fall festival circuit. (Opens in New York, Los Angeles Nov. 26, later elsewhere.)
— I Love You Phillip Morris. A small-town businessman (Jim Carrey) discovers his gayness, becomes a white-collar criminal and stages a variety of prison escapes. (Slated for December release.)
— Casino Jack. Kevin Spacey appears as lobbyist Jack Abramoff in a story about deep-seated Washington corruption. (Also due in December.)
Although all these movies bear some relationship to real-world events, it’s instructive to note that their differences are as great as any similarities. Such distinctions derive largely from the aims of the various filmmakers, sometimes dictated by the material, sometimes by commercial considerations and sometimes by a mixture of both.
In the case of Secretariat, director Randall Wallace seems to be aiming for two kinds of uplift, one relating to the horse’s accomplishments and the other to the work of its owner, Penny Chenery. Chenery battled long odds to make her mark in a male-dominated racing world.
This approach contrasts with Fincher’s strategy for The Social Network, a movie full of business machinations, personal betrayals and brainy assaults on the status quo. Based on Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, Social Network revels in the excitement that accompanies game-changing invention, but also reveals the character flaws of the geeks who helped change the way we communicate. The movie seems intended to chasten, as well as entertain.
Every movie that’s based on a real story presents its own set of challenges, but some are common to all. How faithful to fact must a filmmaker be? Has the filmmaker revealed an important truth about the story or used it to lend an air of authenticity to something that’s been put through the Hollywood Cuisinart? Is there a point at which artistic license should be revoked?
I really enjoyed Unstoppable – which has more visceral thrills than any movie I’ve seen this year — but no one likely will confuse its heart-stopping action with the actual incident that inspired the movie. In that case, I wasn’t bothered by the gulf between truth and fiction.
Conviction is an even more interesting case. The movie presented the filmmakers with a particular and, to my mind, intriguing problem: When to end the story?
It’s impossible to continue without spoilers, so I encourage you to stop here if you haven’t seen Conviction and still plan to catch the movie, which is well worth a look. Hilary Swank (as Betty Anne Waters) and Sam Rockwell (as her brother Kenny) give strong performances; a terrific ensemble cast that includes Minnie Driver and Juliette Lewis lends support.
Now for those spoilers: Conviction ends on an inspirational note. After 18 years of battling, Waters succeeded in having her brother’s conviction over-turned. She had help from Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project — a group that focuses on cases involving previously neglected DNA evidence. Help aside, without Waters’ efforts, Kenny never would have been released.
There’s no arguing about the magnitude of Waters’ accomplishment, but Conviction doesn’t tell the whole story. Six months after the prison doors finally swung open for Kenny, he died as a result of injuries sustained during a fall. Test audiences evidently felt that such knowledge deflated the movie and obscured its dominant themes: love, loyalty and the value of persistence.
“I wanted to put it in the movie originally,” director Tony Goldwyn told me during a recent interview.
Goldwyn, working with screenwriter Pamela Gray, struggled to find the right way to disclose the information about Kenny’s demise, and eventually did. But people who read the script argued that knowledge of Kenny’s death tended to overwhelm everything else about the story. Goldwyn ultimately left it to audiences to discover the rest of the story outside the theater.
Was he right? The question makes for an interesting argument. Wouldn’t knowledge of Kenny’s fate have strengthened the case for making prompt use of DNA evidence? The innocent should not be languishing in our prisons, especially when the technology exists to exonerate them. Kenny was robbed of 18 years of his life. Doesn’t his death serve to magnify the injustice he suffered?
To tell or not to tell? It’s a dilemma that points to some of the perils of trying to “fictionalize” real events. Maybe the best we can hope for is that filmmakers make responsible choices that are in keeping with the spirit of the stories they’re trying to tell. Fair to say, no one expects a precise rendering of reality, and if you had the opportunity to meet Goldwyn, I think you’d agree that he’s a thoughtful guy who makes considered decisions.
In the case of director George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack, you’ll be able to do a play a major game of compare-and-contrast. You can see Alex Gibney’s documentary – Casino Jack and the United States of Money (released earlier this year) – and compare it with Hickenlooper’s dramatized view of the rise and fall of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
You want the real Abramoff, Kevin Spacey’s version, both or neither? It’s enough to make your head spin – but in a good way. Most of this year’s fact-based movies have been reasonably good. Besides, it’s better to have movies that we can compare to the truth than movies that insist on having no relation to it at all.