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When Fact and Fiction Collide: Are Filmmakers Irresponsible to Blur the Line?

RCL’s Stephen Whitty examines altered reality of “based-on-a-true-story” movies.

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There is fact, and there is fiction.

Except in movies where the two combine, for friction—and in stories that end up being neither completely true, nor utterly false.

The multiplexes are particularly packed right now with these sorta, kinda histories—The Favourite, Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, Mary, Queen of Scots, The Mule—with more to come before the end of the year. And there are a few reasons why they’re so popular, and present.

First, for filmmakers a based-on-fact story already has most of the heavy lifting done. You know who your protagonist and antagonist are. You know what the conflict is, and how it’s resolved.

Second, for an actor—well, there’s a certain appeal to playing a real person, someone you can truly research. Even if they’re no longer with us, they’ve left things behind you can use—memoirs, movies, YouTube clips.

But, most of all?

For some reason, Oscar voters love nominating these sorts of pictures, and performances. And so, before awards season sputters to a close, studios are rushing out every biopic they still have, and running for-your-consideration PR campaigns for the ones they’ve already put out.

The contenders range from political exposes (The Front Runner, Vice), to deep-dive biopics (Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man), from socially-conscious pleas (On the Basis of SexBlacKkKlansman) to quirky crime stories (The Old Man and the Gun, Can You Ever Forgive Me?).

Although they’re all “inspired by real events,” they’re very different kinds of movies. Even when they fake things, it’s in different ways.

Except the first thing they all do, invariably, is cast better-looking people.

Face it, as phenomenally inspiring as you may find her, even in her dewiest youth Ruth Bader Ginsberg never managed to look quite as fetching as Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex. And while Gary Hart was considered the hunkiest presidential candidate of 1988—not all that hard when you’re standing next to Mike Dukakis—casting Hugh Jackman to play him in The Front Runner is in a whole different league.

But you can’t really blame the studios for casting movie stars who don’t look like the real people. After all, if they looked like the real people, they wouldn’t be movie stars.

No, the true deceptions of the based-on-a-true story genre go deeper than that.

The most common deviations from reality come when the subject’s friends or family are still alive—and intimately involved in the production. “Green Book” gives us a fuhgeddaboutit lunkhead hero who, conveniently, almost immediately abandons his racism; Bohemian Rhapsody presents Freddie Mercury’s former bandmates as patient, forgiving and endlessly supportive lads.

Rami Malek stars as Freddie Mercury in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.

True or false? Hard to say for sure, but the fact that the son of the hero of Green Book gets a screenplay credit, and that the surviving Queen members oversaw the production of Bohemian Rhapsody, suggests that the story we’re getting is not only authorized, it’s probably adulterated.

And while we’re certainly used to this if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice approach to celebrity stories, it’s harder to take in films like Gotti, Loving Pablo or White Boy Rick that profile notorious criminals. Made with the input of surviving friends and family, they spend a lot of screentime on mitigating circumstances, and usually end up delivering two-hour, wide-screen cases for the defense.

Biased? You bet. But even films like these are still ahead of the movies that just guiltlessly make things up.

True, most historical dramas have to. Although there are rumors that Queen Anne was gay, The Favourite had to come up with a lot of what-ifs to turn that into a violent love triangle with two royal court connivers. And although Queen Elizabeth and the title character from Mary, Queen of Scots never met in real life—well, what’s a picture about them without at least one quick confrontation scene?

It’s when the stories are based on recent events and still feel free to wildly fake facts that things really go off course, however.

Like The Mule, Clint Eastwood’s movie about an AARP criminal that saddles him with all sorts of family problems to make him more sympathetic, and wrings laughs out of the old man’s politically incorrect jokes and lusty love of three-ways. (In fact, the real drug courier in “The Mule” just wanted to get out of debt, and was probably battling dementia).

Or The Front Runner, which not only carefully keeps the supposed Hart and Donna Rice affair offscreen, but then frames things to make their journalistic antagonists even more hissable (enough so that one real-life character from the story, former Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler, just demanded a retraction from the filmmakers).

And then there are the pure hatchet jobs like the delirious political satire Vice, a comic biography of Dick Cheney that finds its own subject so insanely, theatrically villainous it not only puts him behind every disaster of the last 30 years, it briefly turns into a mock Shakespearean play, with Dick and wife Lynne as the Lord and Lady Macbeth of the Beltway.

Interestingly, of all the year’s based-on-some-facts films, the most honest were probably—and maybe not coincidentally—two of the least-seen, Chappaquiddick and Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The first, a dry-eyed recreation of the Ted Kennedy scandal of 1969 delivered a hard-edged profile in cowardice—one which saw the young senator as a screwed-up product of huge privilege and great tragedy, and which restored dignity and humanity to his victim, Mary Jo Kopechne. The second film, the dramatization of an obscure but fascinating fraud case from the ’90s, refused to soft-focus anything, seeing its letter-forging heroine as an occasionally entertaining, but ultimately self-destructive misanthrope.

Both films, by necessity, had to invent dialogue, imagine motivations, and fill in some gaps. But neither film felt as if it were playing fast and loose with the truth; even when the information put on screen wasn’t technically “facts,” they never felt false. And, most importantly, the movies didn’t try to make things easy or comfortable—for their subjects, or their audience. They didn’t try to airbrush, or exaggerate, their characters flaws, or to simply indulge us, serving up only what we already wanted to believe, for good or bad.

This is what these people were like, they said. This is what they did. We don’t ask that you like them. We only ask that you try to understand them.

Which is what all the most ambitious dramas have always done. Creating characters who are likable, sympathetic, relatable? That’s easy. But putting a cranky, careless, selfish person in front of us? And then demanding we take an interest, and see them as the complicated—and, yet, maybe recognizable—human beings that they are? That’s a real challenge.

And that’s real life.