For Fact-Based Films, Is Scrupulous Accuracy the Ultimate Goal?

Already this season critical arrows are flying regarding dramatization.

It’s perhaps appropriate that a film called “Truth” is gearing up for this year’s awards race, with other movies on the circuit already weathering the usual criticisms regarding the dramatization of real-life events.

At the Telluride Film Festival, “Steve Jobs” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin got out in front of the fact that the Danny Boyle-directed biopic doesn’t necessarily present things accurately. “Art isn’t about what happened,” Sorkin said at the time. “You can see a very good piece of journalism about him.” The goal, he said, was to make a “painting” rather than a “photograph.”

Last season, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” was blindsided by criticisms over accuracy late in the year, kicking off a cycle of pieces that didn’t help its chances. Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” took its share of knocks as well. We’re also three years removed from the unprecedented Congressional takedown of “Zero Dark Thirty” on the grounds that, according to politicos anyway, the film incorrectly asserted that information crucial to finding Osama Bin Laden was obtained through torture. This kind of truth shaming is happening so often that one has to wonder if the “Steve Jobs” press patter at such an early stage in the campaign is a preemptive strike by filmmakers to define the talking points.

In any event, it didn’t stop Apple CEO Tim Cook from criticizing the film sight unseen, and implicating similarly themed projects as well, like Alex Gibney’s docu “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” and Joshua Michael Stern’s “Jobs,” with Ashton Kutcher. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Cook said the Jobs he knew “was an amazing human,” and fairly bristled at reports of the not-so-nice version of the man presented by actor Michael Fassbender in Boyle’s film. He also called such projects “opportunistic.”

While it depends whose version of the truth you prefer, it’s clear that the filmmakers were not interested in recounting a standard-issue list of greatest hits. Indeed, maybe a titan as significant as Jobs deserves more than the rote treatment we’re used to. And tapping into his essence, instead of merely delivering a biographical laundry list of achievements, is more compelling than simply rehashing the man’s life.

(Sorkin, by the way, returned fire with much heavier artillery, saying in an interview that “if you’ve got a factory full of children in China assembling phones for 17 cents an hour you’ve got a lot of nerve calling someone else opportunistic.” He soon after apologized, as I imagine the last thing Universal and the filmmakers want here is a snipe war between the Apple institution and the film.)

Meanwhile, Whitey Bulger accomplice Kevin Weeks, portrayed in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” by actor Jesse Plemons, has taken things a step further, hiring a publicist to fill email inboxes in announcing his availability as an interview subject. Calling the film “a fantasy” in a Daily Beast interview, Weeks — who turned state’s evidence in order to get a reduced sentence — was mostly unhappy with the fact that his character looked like “a knuckle-dragging moron (with) Down syndrome.”

He went on to parse the film scene by scene, meticulously (bone-chillingly) describing how the actual murder of a 26-year-old girl differed from its depiction in the movie, and quipping that the only accurate thing about Johnny Depp’s performance was the hairline. One of Bulger’s attorneys, Hank Brennan, has also gone on record taking the picture to task. (Your mileage may vary on taking an ex-con and the defender of same at their word.)

And then there’s “Into Thin Air” author Jon Krakauer, who called Baltasar Kormákur’s “Everest” — about the 1996 mountain climbing disaster — “total bull.” Kormákur has said that William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay was not based on any one of the event’s narratives, so certainly not on Krakauer’s book. The goal, according to actor Michael Kelly (who plays Krakauer in the film), was a mash-up of the varying accounts that exist.

I find it exhausting that so many recent films — even science-fiction fare like “Gravity,” which brought astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to Twitter two seasons ago to remind us that the International Space Station’s orbit was misrepresented —  endure this kind of nitpicking. It often becomes fodder for the cutthroat world of Oscar campaigns, where a whiff of inaccuracy can be enough to broadly dismiss a deserving contender. This is not what movies, or awards, are supposed to be about.

In Telluride, Boyle put it to me perfectly: “Just because something isn’t factually correct doesn’t mean it’s not truthful. In art and film, you have to represent the truth rather than photograph it.”

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