Truth in movies

I’m not looking for documentaries in my biopics.

American-Sniper-2014If you’re a big movie fan, you’ve noticed the wealth of movies that based on real-life events, including Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Unbroken, and Wild.

Someone named Penelope Puddlisms wrote: “I read your interesting review about the Selma movie and the issue about its accuracy. It makes me wonder why anyone would risk fudging even a small bit of the facts when every other aspect tries so painfully hard to be carefully spot on and provide a documentary feel. This happens in lots of similar movies.”

That is a reasonable question. One could ask “why” of the novelist who fictionalizes real events. A lot of the real things that happen are not very dramatic. Movies often combine characters, and tighten time frames, because the absolute, unedited factual events are often BORING.

Of course, the further from the present one is, or events that took place in remote locations, not documented by camera. Inevitably, one has to extrapolate dialogue, at least.

Beyond that, and I’m neither a novelist nor a filmmaker, I suppose, it is to make a greater point about the situation.

For example, in American Sniper, a movie I have not seen, Chris Hedges writes:

Enter The Butcher—a fictional Iraqi character created for the film. Here we get the most evil of the evildoers. He is dressed in a long black leather jacket and dispatches his victims with an electric drill. He mutilates children—we see a child’s arm he amputated. A local sheik offers to betray The Butcher for $100,000. The Butcher kills the sheik. He murders the sheik’s small son in front of his mother with his electric drill. The Butcher shouts: “You talk to them, you die with them.”

I surmise, and I’m just spitballing here, that by making the bad guy more villainous, it makes the killing of “savage, despicable evil” more justifiable, even palatable.

The Imitation Game, which I liked quite a bit, nevertheless took great liberties with many characters, as you can read in Slate. For instance:

[Christopher] Hodges [author of the book Alan Turing: The Enigma] paints Turing as shy, eccentric, and impatient with irrationality, but Cumberbatch’s narcissistic, detached Alan has more in common with the actor’s title character in Sherlock than with the Turing of Hodges’ biography. One of Turing’s colleagues at Bletchley Park later recalled him as “a very easily approachable man” and said “we were very very fond of him”; none of this is reflected in the film.

Why the character alteration? Perhaps because it made a more interesting story, more of a contrast with some of the other participants.

Time magazine analyzed Big Eyes, another film I appreciated. While some parts were deemed as true:

In the film, next to nobody is allowed in the Keane house for fear that they will discover Margaret’s studio and therefore the Keane secret. Though it is true that nobody—including Margaret’s daughter and their staff—was allowed in Margaret’s studio, Walter Keane would invite socialites and celebrities to their home.

I surmise that the fiction made her seem even more isolated, since “Margaret rarely met these celebs since she was painting 16 hours per day. Even when Walter left the house, he would call Margaret every hour to ensure that she hadn’t left.”

Entertainment Weekly fact-checked Theory of Everything. Stephen Hawking deemed the movie about his life with his ex-wife, “broadly true.” I liked it, but maybe if it were less true to its source, it might have been a more exciting film.

I’m not looking for documentaries in my biopics. It may be useful to check to see how much the story varies from the facts, but I certainly never felt the need to do so before seeing any film, only after the fact.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Imitation Game

The film The Imitation Game flashes back to Alan Turing’s childhood prep school.

2014, THE IMITATION GAMEIf it weren’t for Alan Turing, you might not be reading this or much else on the Internet. He “was an English mathematician, wartime code-breaker and pioneer of computer science.”

But he was pretty much just a name to me until my friend Mary and I went to see The Imitation Game last week, as usual at The Spectrum in Albany. It was a story about how Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and fellow mathematicians (including Matthew Goode, from the TV show The Good Wife, as Hugh Alexander) try to crack the enigma code that the Germans were using to transmit their movements.

The code was thought to be unbreakable because the number of calculations needed to suss it out was far greater than the human mind could tally in hundreds of years. But, Turing wondered, what would happen if one could devise a MACHINE to figure out what another machine was doing?

This was a difficult sell, in part because Turing was awkward, and, understandably, arrogantly confident in his talents. He was not a “people person.” When he finagles some control of the project, he uses a crossword puzzle to recruit a couple more people, including a young woman (Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke).

The film flashes back to Turing’s childhood prep school, where he was bullied and had but one very good friend. It also jumps forward, where the police, investigating a break-in at Turing’s house, discover secrets about his past and present life, including his homosexuality, which was a crime in 1950s Britain.

Despite his current popularity – type in BEN in IMBD, and Benedict Cumberbatch is the first name to pop up – I had only seen the lead actor in one other role, a small but important part in August: Osage County; he was quite good.

Here he carries the film, though Knightly and the other actors are also very good. The film uses some stock war footage, and, interestingly to me, it doesn’t look as obviously different as in some films I’ve seen.

The negative reviews – they were 90% positive on Rotten Tomatoes – chide the movie for taking Turing and making him less interesting, less nuanced than he should have been portrayed. Moreover, the screen overlay coda of his ultimate fate was considered a bit of a cheat. Since I knew only the name, I can’t speak to the former. The latter argument has some validity, I suppose, but a late scene in the movie does explain the situation to my satisfaction.

Bottom line: I watched what was on the screen, without the background on Turing, and found myself quite entertained and informed.