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Experts weigh in on reality-based films

Do filmmakers stick to facts in telling stories?

Critics have weighed in on most of this year’s movies. When it comes to those films based on a true story, however, they are not always the ultimate judge. Regarding this year’s batch of reality-based fare, Variety went to the real experts to get their opinion.

Ex-cop Joseph Wambaugh liked what he saw in this year’s “Zodiac,” even if its makers couldn’t corroborate every last detail as he did in his 1979 true-crime thriller, “The Onion Field.”

“‘Zodiac’ takes a strong position that the journalist (Jake Gyllenhaal) pretty much had figured who did it. Of course, that guy is dead. If he were alive, the film wouldn’t have taken such a strong position. A dead man can’t sue,” Wambaugh points out.

But is the movie killer the real Zodiac killer?

“Your guess is as good as mine,” says the scribe of the recent bestseller “Hollywood Station.” “It’s a helluva movie, but it’s good that guy is dead.”

Outside magazine’s Christopher Keyes is the editor who assigned Jon Krakauer the article that became the book that became the Sean Penn movie “Into the Wild.”

“There’s always the fear that true stories are going to get sensationalized,” Keyes says of movie adaptations. “But ‘Into the Wild’ was unbelievably accurate. Sean Penn was meticulous in getting the facts right (including) the Magic Bus and that spot where he crossed the river,” Keyes says, referring to how the real-life Christopher McCandless got trapped in the wilds of Alaska. “The book is a cult classic, and the movie did not mythologize what had really happened.”

Outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, author of “Fair Game,” gives thumbs-up to “A Mighty Heart” and its star, who plays Mariane Pearl.

“I forgot it was Angelina Jolie, which is not easy to do, given who she is,” says the spy-turned-author. Wilson calls the movie “an accurate portrayal of the chaos in that part of the world, as well as what happens when we are dealing with extremists of any type and how things can spiral out of control so quickly. We need, as a world, to provide an avenue for moderates in every nation to speak out. Extremists come in all different stripes — whether you believe the Book of Revelations should replace the U.S. Constitution or that jihad excuses the killing of innocents — and they are all just as lethal to a healthy human condition.”

Absolute fidelity to history was probably not foremost in anyone’s mind when it came to making the testosterone fest known as “300.” According to UCLA classics prof Kathryn A. Morgan, the movie took “huge liberties,” not to mention it presented “some fundamental misrepresentations of Spartan society.”

But then, “300” is a movie, not a history class. “I suppose it would not have looked good to show the Spartan defenders of universal freedom as brutal masters of a large serf/slave population,” Morgan observes.

Dramatic license had nothing to do with James Patterson’s responses to two reality-based films. The author of the “Maximum Ride” and “Women’s Murder Club” series knows how to spin suspense, and in his opinion, “‘Rendition’ is a little too serious and too soon (after the actual events) to be an effective thriller.”

“In the Valley of Elah,” on the other hand, “is a wonderful story that illuminates the sadness and insanity of sending these kids off to this war,” Patterson says. “It is the most satisfying of this current slew of political thrillers. It is unbelievably suspenseful and yet not much happens.”

Lisa Dennison, the former director of the Guggenheim Museum and the current exec VP at Sotheby’s, has little time for biopics of artists. She recalled liking “Pollock” (2000) but not much else — until she saw Milos Forman’s little-seen “Goya’s Ghosts” this year.

“You feel you are immersed in the very pigment of his paintings,” she raves. “I found it a deeply emotional experience, and learned more about the politics of the era and the world of art patronage than I could have imagined a film could expose.”

Diva expert Charles Busch has channeled everyone from Joan Crawford to Judy Garland into his plays, including Off Broadway’s current “Die Mommie Die!” He calls Edith Piaf one of his favorite femme icons.

“I’m always leery to see a movie about someone I know a lot about,” Busch cautions, “but I was fascinated with ‘La Vie en rose.’ What fascinates people about Garland and Piaf is their fragility and their tragedy. With both of them, what we really respond to is this triumph of will, the fragile, wounded person who somehow belts out the huge note and survives another comeback. It’s an incredible movie with a brilliant performance from Marion Cotillard.”

Having written “Dylan: A Biography,” as well as the definitive “The Beatles” (at 965 pages), Bob Spitz doesn’t recommend “I’m Not There” for its factual accuracy — “it’s about as far from Bob Dylan’s life as anyone can get,” he says — but rather for its spirit.

“What the film captures better than anything I’ve ever seen on Bob Dylan is his sense of mystery, his humor and his nasty streak, and how Dylan incorporates all of that into his mystique, and how he spins it and controls it,” says Spitz. “That mystique is the star of the movie.”

Perhaps Clifford Irving knows the subject of “The Hoax” too well to be objective but …

“The movie starts with this guy who is a desperate suburban novelist. He’s broke. His publishers fire him, and, facing poverty, he concocts the scheme of the hoax. None of that happened, of course,” Irving says. “I had a four-book contract with McGraw-Hill, and I was wholly in their good graces. I was living in Spain in a beautiful 15-room house that we owned free and clear. I had a yacht, I drove a nearly new Mercedes. I had a good life. I perpetrated the Howard Hughes hoax because I was nuts — you might even say, temporarily insane — and partly for the fun of it. That’s always a dangerous combination. But the movie ignored that all-too-true motivation.”

Anna Stewart contributed to this report.

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