In 2000 British sensibilities were ruffled to the extent that the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair waded in to a scandalous breach of truth. The film U-571 directed by American Jonathan Mostow was condemned by the British government as being so far from the truth as to besmirch the good name of brave British sailors fighting the Nazis in WWII. The British press had a field day, damning this classic bit of B-movie nuttiness which purported to be recounting a true story about brave and noble American sailors capturing an Enigma machine from a stricken German U-boat. There is a very enjoyable article on the matter in the Guardian which accuses the film-makers of giving historical films a bad name. But since when have film-makers ever allowed the truth to get in the way of a good – or in the case of U-571, a crappy yarn?
I wrote recently about the deluge of biopics and films ‘Based on Real Events’ that have populated our screens in the last year. I think 2016 was a bumper year for this genre. What is it about us as consumers of fiction and in need of a good night out at the movies that we seem to have an unquenchable thirst for films that fictionalise real events for our entertainment? I put my hands up. I love to watch films that claim to be retelling a true story. Trying to analyse this I put it down to the following. There is a big part of me that wants to believe that there is a base of truth in everything I watch. I want to be able to identify with characters – heroes generally – when I suspend my disbelief in that darkened room. I want to come away from a film feeling satisfied on many levels, but primarily internally richer for the experience. Great fiction tackles the truth of our lives in such a way that we are compelled to immerse ourselves in the emotional experience within the narrative.
Recently we have been fortunate to have been spoiled for choice when it comes to pure fiction truly reflecting and exploring the real truth of human existence. If you haven’t yet seen Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman pick up the DVD ASAP! Maybe with the knowledge that what I am about to see is based around a real-life truth, rather than an imagined one, the ability to suspend disbelief is made easier. I can come away from the film believing that I am now informed about something that actually happened and a better person for it!
There are times when, for me, this really works as with Mick Jackson’s 2016 film Denial which tells the story of Deborah Lipstadt’s court-case against Holocaust denier David Irving. The story was familiar to me. Yet, what I learned from the film was the thinking behind the defence’s strategy to discredit Irving and the difference between libel law in the UK and the US. The film felt like it was being truthful and honest with me in presenting a believable narrative. I bought into the plot devices of tension, suspense, surprise. It didn’t matter that all the dialogue in court was not verbatim or the narrative was selective.
Yet, there are times when one feels cheated by the fictionalising of a true story. What was, in truth, a great story about black female empowerment, endemic racism and an un-told story about America’s efforts’ to get a man into space, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, suffered terribly from its ‘Hollywoodisation’, (dare I use such a word?). I got sick of the segregated lavatory sequences and stopped believing it might have been true. Kevin Costner removing the lavatory sign was also presented as a cinematic cliché which simply had the effect of detaching me from living within the narrative. The ‘realities’ of the time were often applied unsubtly.
Ultimately, it is all about money and bums on seats. Hollywood is especially skilled at the ‘Based on a True Story’ film because people want to see films that they can believe. The past is so important to us and the lines of observational story-telling, especially with history on television, have become so blurred because now film-makers have fancy tools to re-create the past in a dramatic, epic and believable way. We want fiction to be true. We have a new epic in 3D to look forward to this year, King Arthur. This might be part of our cultural mythology but there are plenty of people who want to believe in said king. Whether it is a dodgy jingoistic fantasy about a German U-boat or Moses parting the waves, a good yarn becomes a foundation for our own identities and facts have very little to do with it.
Also published on Medium.