For weeks there’s been a feeding frenzy to find any fabrications, distortions or misrepresentations in fact-based Oscar-nominated films. It’s become an annual tradition in the Oscars race. In recent years the scrutiny of fact-based films has become particularly aggressive and intense.
“I think a lot of that actually comes from the incredible proliferation now of websites, blogs and columnists devoted to awards season who write about it all year long and who inevitably need new angles to play and new stories to write about,” says Scott Foundas, chief film critic at Variety. “I think that feeds the desire to have all of these stories that scrutinise the historical accuracy of these films.”
There may be other reasons for the increased critiquing of fact-based Oscar-nominated films. “This year there were more of them than in any other year I can remember. There were just so many that were inspired by true stories, so I think we’re hearing – or we may be noticing it – more this year, for that reason,” says Scott Feinberg, lead awards analyst at The Hollywood Reporter.
Three movies: Selma, The Imitation Game and American Sniper have been the most examined and challenged this year – each accused of playing loose with the facts.
With Selma, a key criticism came from the director of the Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library, Mark Updegrove, who claimed the film wrongly portrayed President Johnson as an obstructionist on civil rights.
Then Joseph A Califano Jr, who was President Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs in the 1960s, stated that the Selma march, which the film shows was Martin Luther King Jr’s initiative, was in fact President Johnson’s idea.
In a tweet, the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, characterised that assertion as “jaw dropping and offensive”. Despite her rebuttals, the criticisms of Selma got considerable coverage and left the impression that its accuracy might be flawed.
It’s hard to know if Selma lost support among Academy members because of the controversy, but it only picked up two nominations.
One of the problems is that no narrative feature is going to be able to convey the absolute truth. Characters inevitably get conflated and information omitted.
“I think if you have two hours to tell a story, you have to contract things, you have to make your point in ways that a documentary would make them differently,” says David Oyelowo, the British actor who portrays Martin Luther King Jr.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who’s been nominated for his screenplay for The Theory of Everything, concedes that it’s a constant balancing act to write an engaging script while retaining truthfulness.
“We’re in the service of truth. Sometimes that obliges you to take shortcuts of poetic license. You’re obliged to do it. You can take too many liberties, you have to find a line between it all,” he says.
During awards season the omission, or toning down, of aspects of a real person’s character in a screenplay can often prove controversial. This year it happened with The Imitation Game, for which there was considerable complaint, much of it from gay activists, over the portrayal of Alan Turing, who cracked the German Enigma code during World War Two.
“It doesn’t do enough to portray Alan Turing as a gay man,” says film critic Armond White of National Review and OUT Magazine.
But The Imitation Game’s screenwriter Graham Moore believes he has fashioned quite a gay story. “I think that Alan Turing is gay in every single frame of The Imitation Game. You just don’t see him in the act of sex,” he says.
Historically, there have been similar flaps concerning previous Oscar pictures. The 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind, a biographical film of Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Nash, is one such example. It was charged that Nash’s alleged homosexuality was airbrushed out of the film. It also didn’t help that there were accusations that Nash was guilty of anti-Semitism. For the record, Nash denied that he was anti-Semitic or gay to The New York Times at the time. But these charges created a significant outcry, and great difficulty for the individuals conducting the picture’s Academy campaign. Despite the controversy, A Beautiful Mind still went on to win four Oscar trophies, including best picture.
The other film caught up in all the mudslinging this year has been American Sniper, the story of US Navy Seal Chris Kyle, directed by Clint Eastwood. With this picture criticism has largely broken down along political lines, with liberals arguing that the movie glorifies killing, demeans Arabs and omits some less than flattering aspects of Kyle’s life. There has also been an effort by the film’s critics to point out that the Academy shouldn’t be celebrating a film about a soldier who reportedly described killing Iraqis as “fun”.
The picture, which has been a huge box office success, has been strongly embraced by many conservatives who view it as a well-crafted and very moving portrait of a troubled but patriotic US soldier.
Fact or fiction?
“The big no-no, the big red line for me is distortion. I don’t think in pursuit of impact or sensation [you] should ever distort, because you’ve breached your mission which is at the service of the truth,” says McCarten.
He also makes the point that with moviegoers it’s almost impossible to get away with fabrication because today’s audiences are so well informed.
“Where you come unstuck is in the age of Google,” he says. “People see a movie, and they go ‘I loved it’ until they Google it and see, “Oh, that is absolutely false,” and the relationship you’ve built with that viewer is destroyed. So that’s where I think distortion has to be avoided, even though it can be very tempting dramatically. You just have to say ‘no’.”
Some critics think that with all this scrutiny film-makers are being kept to too high a standard.
“I think it’s really a bit much to ask a film to 100% reproduce reality on screen when I think the average person in their own lives has a hard time remembering exactly how things happened even [about] lunch with someone a week ago,” says Foundas.
During Oscar season it’s important that any charges of fabrication or misrepresentation are addressed rapidly – or else they might stick. Two years ago members of the US Senate Intelligence Committee took issue with Zero Dark Thirty, claiming that it was grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture led to the location of Osama bin Laden. There was never an effective early rebuttal by the studio to that accusation – and the film, which had been seen as a strong Oscar contender, never recovered. Zero Dark Thirty took home just one trophy.
“My feeling is that a lot of these discussions are actually pretty interesting because they encourage people to look beyond the surface of the movie,” says Foundas. “I think it’s great to talk about what a film’s politics are, what kind of ideologies are operating in the film, what may or may not be implied by omitting something or including something.”
Despite all the heat that’s been generated by the recent scrutiny of fact-based movies it’s unlikely that any of it will have an impact on the outcome on the Oscars race itself because the two frontrunners for best picture this year, Boyhood and Birdman, are both works of fiction and therefore immune to charges that they may be less than truthful.
Film-makers will always want to tell real stories and to sell their work they will sometimes claim the authority of fact. Yet they also want the licence to fictionalise and still maintain what they’ve put together amounts to the truth. But it’s a concept of truth-telling that just doesn’t hold up for a broad swath of shrewd moviegoers who are just a Google search away from fact-checking these films.
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