Movie-Reality Check: How Real Is 'Real,' Anyway?

Correction Oct. 31, 2008

Some versions of this story incorrectly identified the actor who plays George W. Bush as James Brolin. In fact, the role is played by James Brolin's son, Josh Brolin. The text on this page has been corrected.

Josh Brolin in 'W.'

hide captionJosh Brolin does a convincing impression of George W. Bush — so some may forget that the film is a dramatization of reality, not reality itself.

Sidney Ray Baldwin/Lionsgate Films
The crew from 'Miracle at St. Anna' i i

hide captionFact-check: Spike Lee's portrait of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division in Miracle At St. Anna — a movie based on a novel inspired by the real Army unit — inspired one veteran to quibble.

David Lee/Touchstone
The crew from 'Miracle at St. Anna'

Fact-check: Spike Lee's portrait of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division in Miracle At St. Anna — a movie based on a novel inspired by the real Army unit — inspired one veteran to quibble.

David Lee/Touchstone

When I see the words "based on a true story" flash on a movie screen, I'm pulled in several directions.

Having a real-world model adds interest to a film that might otherwise seem far-fetched or obvious. But I'm also nagged by questions of responsibility: Just how true has the film been to that underlying reality? And how much should it matter if it hasn't been?

That closeness can certainly be entertaining. In Oliver Stone's W., actor Josh Brolin does an impersonation of President George W. Bush that has to be heard to be believed.

On the other hand, I know from personal experience how upset people get when films tinker even slightly with the facts. I heard a journalist who covered the war in Yugoslavia eviscerate Michael Winterbottom's Welcome To Sarajevo because the film used the wrong hotel as press headquarters. I recently got a letter from a veteran of the U.S. Army's last all-black combat unit telling me what was inaccurate about Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna, and an e-mail from a former Hezbollah sympathizer deriding the inaccuracies in Body of Lies.

I have my own theory about how reality and film interact, and it dates from being a reporter at The Washington Post at the time All The President's Men hit the big screen. I vividly remember sitting in the audience and watching as Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, gets hung up on by former Attorney General John Mitchell.

"Wow," I thought to myself. "How exciting, how romantic to have someone hang up on you." Then I remembered that in the real world of The Washington Post, having someone hang up on you that way is depressing and demeaning, not exciting at all.

That's when I learned that even when they're trying to be realistic, movies by their very nature glamorize everything they touch. So if you're looking for anything like accuracy in movies, you're barking up the wrong tree. It's simply not possible.

All you can ask of what's on the screen is that it be persuasive and dramatically consistent as a piece of storytelling. If you get that much, you're getting a heck of a lot.

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