What kind of accuracy do you expect from movies based on real people or events?
Maybe a better question might be: What kind of accuracy do you want? And are you willing to swallow a few falsehoods in the name of good entertainment?
Unlike documentaries, narrative features based on true-life stories tend to occupy this nebulous middle ground between fiction and nonfiction, where details and timelines become collapsed or murky. Side characters or entire moments are created out of whole cloth for the sake of story expediency.
For me, good biopics are shaped around facts rather than fudges. As a journalist, that’s something I think about all the time when I approach my own work: That it’s not only possible but vital to tell true stories in interesting and compelling ways, inconvenient details and all.
The rules aren’t the same when it comes to telling a cohesive story on screen, requiring different skills and nuanced decisions. Film is — and should be — an artistic expression. I want filmmakers to have the space to be creative and stray from the record to underscore certain ideas or themes.
I just don’t want to feel lied to by a movie.
Golden Globe winners “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Green Book” have both been criticized for this and I think with good reason.
I won’t list all the discrepancies here; you can find numerous stories online that go into detail.
But let’s talk about key elements from each film that depart from reality. In the case of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is about the band Queen and its charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), one aspect is the timing of Mercury’s HIV diagnosis.
Writing about movies for a living means thinking about what kinds of stories they tell, so I rang up some of my colleagues to get their take.
Here’s Kevin Fallon, the senior entertainment reporter for The Daily Beast:
“I understand when you’re distilling a person’s life into a two-hour movie, there’s going to be the need to play with things a little bit in order to have a narrative chug along,” he said. “But what this movie does is falsify things in a way to manipulate an audience into a reaction and I find that gross.”
“Bohemian Rhapsody” moves up Mercury’s diagnosis by two years to 1985, which means the moment lands with an added intensity “to make it seem like it was the impetus for that performance of his career at Live Aid,” is how Fallon put it. “They changed the facts for purely dramatic reasons — to manipulate an emotional reaction from the audience — but that just wasn’t what happened. I think that it’s a very crass thing to do to Freddie Mercury’s legacy and the AIDS movement, honestly.”
That matters. Even if you think the movie is a good time and you love Malek’s performance.
“Green Book” might feature lesser-known subjects at its center but it is also based on a true story. It follows the odd coupling of the elegant black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the white meathead of a driver Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) that he hires as both chauffeur and bodyguard for a concert tour across the South in the early 1960s. Over the course of their two months on the road together, the brilliant but uptight Don Shirley learns to loosen up a little and connect with his blackness, while the uncouth Tony Lip learns not to be such a racist. And a lifelong friendship ensues.
The film was co-written by Peter Farrelly (who also directs), Brian Hayes Currie and Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga, and their source material was drawn from the letters Tony wrote home during the tour, as well as tapes of Vallelonga talking with his father about the old days.
Though the film has been marketed as the true and definitive version of how these two men processed issues of race and racism in America, it’s filtered only through the prism of the Vallelonga family memories. (All three of the screenwriters are white.)
And many of us in the media have helped to solidify the movie’s marketing. Here’s Time magazine, for example: “According to Vallelonga, everything depicted in the film ‘Green Book’ happened in real life.”
The members of Shirley’s family feel otherwise and in a story reported by Shadow and Act have called the movie’s portrayal a “symphony of lies.” (They were not consulted with for the film.)
Here’s one criticism that stands out: Whatever impression Tony Lip or his son might have had about the men’s dynamic, Don Shirley himself did not consider his driver a close friend.
That doesn’t mean Shirley wasn’t perhaps friendly with his employee. But being friendly is altogether different than a deep and abiding personal friendship and it undercuts the story’s message. This is a movie with a moral to its story — and that moral is apparently false (not to mention reductive).
The critic Candice Frederick reviewed the movie for SlashFilm and this is what she had to say about biopics and accuracy: “It’s definitely a case-by-case basis. And ‘Green Book’ is a very specific case. When you’re taking artistic license — which I don’t condemn — you have to make sure that you’re not simultaneously disparaging the character. And I think that’s what’s happening with ‘Green Book.’
“The film’s portrayal of Don Shirley isn’t a well-rounded depiction of a person, period. He’s so distant from his humanity, so distant from his blackness, he’s so distant from people that he becomes this alien character who is reflected through the eyes of a white person. Even without knowing anything about Don Shirley’s life, I was like, this can’t be — it didn’t seem plausible that this was all there was to him. So that’s when I’m like, where was the research? Who did you talk to?
“And if you read interviews with Peter Farrelly or Nick Vallelonga, they say the movie is about these two men who are very different and they overcome their differences to become lifelong friends. If that’s what they’re saying and that’s not true, then what are we doing?”
The thing about biopics is that sometimes they have a way of becoming the definitive version of a story that becomes entrenched in our collective headspace — and any other films that come in their wake have the job of persuading us otherwise.
“Audiences don’t necessarily go home and research a person after they see a movie,” said Frederick. “I think that’s just the world we live in. People take a depiction — particularly when it’s a movie — and think: OK, I got all the information I need.”
I agree with that. And also with this observation from Fallon:
“I think people sort of go in blindly assuming that these movies are completely accurate, which might be a naive thing to do, but I think that’s just what happens. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that filmmakers have to stick exactly to every single fact.
"But I do think it does give a burden of responsibility to stay as close as possible to the spirit of the truth in a way that doesn’t alter the way a person lived or their legacy or their values and ideals in order to manufacture some creative moment. That’s where I think ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Green Book’ made grave missteps that are contributing to this backlash.
“One interesting thing about both of these movies,” he added, “is the liberties that were taken in order to make the movies more watered down and more broadly mass-appealing. So, now we’re seeing a huge dissonance between the people who are upset about the facts being inaccurate and arguing that these movies suffer because of that, and audiences who simply had a great time watching these movies and don’t understand why anyone is in a huff about it: ‘I enjoyed the movie, I don’t care about these details. Stop being a hater, everyone had a good time, why are you trying to ruin things?’”
Another film getting notice this awards season is “The Favourite,” set in 18th century Britain and centering on three women: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Sarah Churchill, who is one of her advisers (Rachel Weisz) and Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), the upstart who maneuvers to become the queen’s favorite.
You can find any number of articles analyzing how closely the story does or doesn’t track with actual history, but the conversation around the film feels different. Whatever its inaccuracies, the movie hasn’t specifically bothered people the way “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Green Book” have.
Here’s one possible reason: “‘The Favourite’ is a movie that’s telling a larger story than the bullet-point biography of each of those three characters,” said Frederick. “It has less to do with depicting these people’s biographies and more to do with an overarching theme, which is: These women are vying for the attention of each other in these really theatrical and dramatic ways, rather than vying for the attention of men.”
Much as I might want filmmakers to stick with the facts, I can find holes in my own argument. 1965’s “The Sound of Music” contains elements large and small that don’t sync up with the real von Trapp family story, including fundamental personality changes to the two leads. And yet the movie works. I wasn’t sure to how reconcile this until Fallon pointed out something.
“‘The Sound of Music’ is a musical fantasy, above all else, let alone a truthful depiction of people and events,” he said. “It doesn’t purport to be a film of record.”
That’s a distinction worth pondering.
Because “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Green Book” do purport to be films of record “to the point where ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ meticulously re-creates that Live Aid sequence, shot-for-shot,” Fallon said, “which is telegraphing to audiences that it is realistic, that it is based on fact — that what you’re watching actually happened.
“And ‘Green Book’ ends with one of those title cards bringing you up to speed on each of the characters, which also telegraphs to an audience that the events that you just watched are part of the historical record because, look: We’re providing more facts about them.”
These are subtle cues that tell an audience if a movie is a larger-than-life creative gambit or something closer to realism. But it also matters how the filmmakers themselves talk about their work.
“When you looked at the people on stage accepting the award for ‘Green Book’ at the Golden Globes,” said Fallon, “with the exception of Octavia Spencer as producer, it was an entirely white male creative team explaining to us how their movie is going to fix racism. And I think just the optics behind that are also part of the reason why the liberties they took in the film are so frustrating.
“There’s no perfect answer to the question of accuracy,” he added. “I think it’s a case-by-case basis. But in the end there generally is some responsibility to the truth — at least the spirit of it.”
Here’s to more accuracy when it counts.