Thursday, October 17, 2013

Based On A True Story? You Can't Handle the TRUTH!

There's a misnomer with Hollywood.  Whenever we hear the words "true story", we misconstrue the intent.  Movies have never been about telling us the truth.  There are stories that strive to invoke a sense of it -- to offer some glimmer of clairvoyance.  But the simple "truth" is a tagline that has been -- and always will be -- a marketing scheme.   

Captain Phillips, a film I plan on seeing soon, has incurred publicity for fictionalizing real-life accounts.  According to his former ship's crew, the real Phillips was careless and their ship, the MV Maersk Alabama too close to pirate waters in Somalia back in 2009.  The film version, according to sources, omits Phillip's negligence.  Instead, we have Tom Hanks playing hero.  And I'm fine with that.

Phillips has been lauded by critics for its gripping tension and Hank's performance.  Within the confines of 134 minutes, there's a great film (again, their words, not mine)Hopefully, its audience will build just as they have for Gravity, a film that, as far as I know, never actually happened.

Instead, Gravity, attempts to ingrain a sense of reality within its confines.  In my original review, I mentioned how the film depended on a series of both lucky and very unlucky circumstances.  If Sandra Bullock and George Clooney successfully navigated to the Russian space station, hit the ignition and floored the gas back to the Earth, it would have been more believable...and less fulfilling.

We'll never know the whole truth behind the pirate attack on the Alabama because its based solely on the accounts of several eye-witnesses, each of whom will interpret events with their respective tunnel vision.  Captain Phillips, the film, is a real-life account being retold and reshaped based on some very talented film-makers, who aim to entertain first and maybe inspire and enlighten.  But their business model has never been about getting the facts straight.

I always posited that telling the truth is impossible.  We're built to lie to each other and to ourselves.  In Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashomon, four eye-witnesses recount the events of a rape and murder.  Each person identifies a completely different account -- even who actually committed the murder itself.  Were they lying?  In the end, we never learn the truth, except gain the knowledge that, perhaps, humans are designed by nature to aggrandize, exaggerate, manipulate and utterly misinterpret.

Does this give film-makers liberty to take liberties, even if it means giving credit to those who don't deserve it?  I suppose that is up the audience.  We need to understand that movies will never be factual and the real-life counterparts are prone to unfair criticism or unwarranted lauding.  Take, for example, last year's Best Picture winner, Argo, which received its own share of criticism.  It suggested that the Iran rescue was the brain-child of American officials with the support of Canada.  But many have contended that Canada's role was marginalized considerably.  There's a new documentary called "Our Man in Tehran", which attempts to accredit the Canadian officials who helped and actually planned the rescue.  It's up to audiences to see it and decipher for themselves. 

I grow weary of people who walk into the mutliplex and exit feeling they've been informed.  It just doesn't happen that way.  Even film that strives for authenticity take liberties.  They have to.  Reality is simply less interesting.  Fiction itself has to be reshaped as they transition to different mediums.  A brilliant book would not translate into a film.  It needs to be retooled.

Captain Phillips is not reality.  For example, if we saw Tom Hanks show incompetence, we would be pre-conditioned to care less for his future plight.  As audiences, we're conditioned to root only for characters that we truly like, even if in reality, we are more likely to forgive people for faults when life and death is in play.  The truth hinders the story. 

But this is the movies!  And thank God for it, where we can see a film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was also "based on a true story" and lavish in the hyperbolic events while scoffing down popcorn kernels.  Even films that aim to inform are not without deviation.  Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List depicted the Holocaust with careful attention to detail even at the cost of entertainment.  His film had an objective.  But in the end when Schindler bids farewell to the Jewish workers he's saved and had his famous lament "I could have done more..."  Did that really happen?  Or did Schindler just pack up the car and drive off?  More likely.  But it would have made for a cheap ending, wouldn't it?

1 comment:

  1. Oscar Schindler got in his car and was attacked by a giant shark a la Sam Jackson in deep blue sea. They omit that part because that Shark eventually become mayor of France. True story, it's in the bible.

    Good read Chris.