‘Based on a true story…’



The recent film “American Hustle” has perhaps the most honest caveat that plays along similar lines. It says, “Some of these events really happened.” This is simply a nicer way of saying the trite “based on a true story.”

Wikipedia is a godsend for random lists. In this case, movies based on actual events. Interestingly, for all of movie history – dating back to the 1800s! – there were 211 movies made before the year 2000 that claimed to be based on fact. After 2000, all 14 years of it, there have been 221 made.

At some level, being based on a true story reels the audience in further to the fictional tale told on the screen. We are more likely to believe the rags-to-riches or inspirational tale of the hero if we think it is true.

“Good Morning Vietnam?” Apparently, everything in it except the main character was made up for the character played by Robin Williams. “The Hurricane?” Ditto – except that was largely to paint Rubin “Hurricane” Carter as a victim of a racist justice system. Many of these movies are based on actual news events – such as “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Diana” – or books, such as “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” which was based on the autobiography.

What really takes the cake, however, is when horror movies claim they are true. Again, this is simply to make the film seem more believable. It has become almost expected now to see “based on a true story” before every ghost story or stab-fest. “The Strangers” is a perfect example of this. Everything in the movie except the ending is completely fabricated. Yes, two people were killed. Were the two hours leading up to this fact or simply educated guessing as to what happened?

It might be more fair to say these films “drew inspiration from real events.” or they “have some facts in them.” Like places, or gravity.

Not all movies are lying when they make the claim. Some tweak reality a little to make the story flow better or fit into a two-hour movie. The recent “Dallas Buyers Club” created two characters who were composites of several other people. Instead of having a cast of dozens, the filmmakers simply made up those two people.

Sometimes Hollywood gets it right. The recent “Lincoln” was praised for its accuracy. Even then, it fudged some facts. Allen Guelzo, of Gettysburg College, is quoted as saying “the film was 90 percent on the mark, which given the way Hollywood usually does history is saying something.”

It is indeed saying something, especially for such an important moment in history boiled down to a few hours of screen time.

The kicker to all this is at the end of the credits of all of these films. There is that legal mumbo jumbo in fine print saying all the characters and events in the film are fictional and any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.

Well, at least that’s honest.

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