Hollywood more interested in the story than in the facts
By Steven Rea
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Never mind the war between left and right over the politics of “American Sniper.” What about the war between fact and fiction?
In the Clint Eastwood-directed box-office juggernaut ($260 million and counting), adapted from Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s account of his four Iraq tours and his unmatched record of “kills,” several key plot points might not be nearly as accurate as its titular marksman.
But that’s Hollywood.
Four of the eight titles vying for the Academy Award for best picture are based on real people, real events, real stories: “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything.” They all tweak details, buttress the importance of some characters and conflate others, offer truthiness instead of truth.
Movies are entertainment, after all, and since the earliest Silent Era biopics and war sagas, screenwriters and directors have sweated history’s complexities, trying to squeeze messy realities and relationships into neat story arcs, eking inspirational moments out of exploits marked by tedious endeavor.
Let’s train our sights, then, on some of the liberties taken in the aforementioned films.
• “American Sniper.” One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is when Kyle — Bradley Cooper, nominated for best actor — guns down an Iraqi woman and her young son as they move toward a U.S. convoy, concealing an antitank grenade. In Kyle’s memoir, subtitled “The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History,” he acknowledges shooting the woman — it was his first confirmed kill in Iraq — but never a child. About a later incident (also depicted in the film) in which he had a boy in his crosshairs, Kyle wrote, “I wasn’t going to kill a kid, innocent or not.”
• “The Imitation Game. “That wasn’t true,” Keira Knightley says about the conflict shown in the film between her character, the cryptanalyst Joan Clarke, and Clarke’s parents, who didn’t want her working with Alan Turing and his team at the British code-breaking facility, Bletchley Park. “We added that whole thing about the family,” reveals Knightley, nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar.
While Clarke’s biography was embroidered for dramatic effect, key personality traits of the Turing that we see in the film — portrayed by Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch — don’t gibe with Andrew Hodges’ book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” on which the picture is based. The real Turing is remembered as likable, socially nimble, up front about being gay. In the film, he’s socially awkward, if not borderline autistic, and ill at ease with his sexuality.
As for the machine he obsessively fusses over that finally, triumphantly breaks the Nazis’ Enigma code — in reality, the mathematical principles behind it were already laid out by a Polish cryptanalyst. And another mathematician, Gordon Welchman, not even featured in the film, worked closely with Turing on its design.
•“Selma. The huge sticking point in Ava DuVernay’s powerful dramatization of the events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to champion voting rights in the South in 1965 is the movie’s depiction of LBJ. President Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, functions like a Screenwriting 101 antagonist, shrugging off King’s entreaties for Oval Office support and legislative action. The film even suggests Johnson was in cahoots with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in a smear campaign against King.
Historians, civil rights leaders, and members of Johnson’s own Cabinet have challenged the portrayal. “The makers of … ‘Selma apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment,’” Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-69, griped in a Washington Post op-ed piece.
• “The Theory of Everything. Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, was a presence on the set of the film about his life and his relationship with Jane Wilde, an undergraduate he met at Cambridge and married. He has said the finished product is “broadly true.”
Based on her 2007 memoir, “Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen” — and starring Oscar nominees Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones — the film skips entirely the year the Hawkings spent in California, where he was a visiting professor at Caltech. It also conflates a series of precipitous falls that led to Hawking’s being diagnosed with ALS, turning it into one jarring tumble on the quad.
Dennis Overbye, a science reporter for the New York Times, also took issue with the film’s simplistic take on Hawking’s achievements, noting that the inspiration for what is called “Hawking radiation” didn’t come from the wheelchaired scientist’s gazing into a cozy, crackling fireplace.
Historical license, though, is as old as history itself. Sometimes it works. The moral issues raised by that scene in “American Sniper” — however distant from the truth — force us to consider the horrors of war from both sides of the bunker.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. Why paint LBJ as a reluctant convert when, despite the 36th president’s flaws, those closest to him say he was genuinely committed to civil rights?
Then there is unhistorical license. Moviemakers have forever been guilty of it. That’s where the remaining four best-picture nominees come in. Sure, “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and “Whiplash” may be studies in fiction, dreamed up in writers’ heads, but even fantasies can have their glitches.
— “Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” Actually, there is very little about Alejandro G. Inarritu’s tour de force with which to quibble. But the idea that an all-powerful New York theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) would threaten Oscar-nominated Michael Keaton’s character with a devastatingly bad review before she has even seen the play he’s starring in and producing — well, even if there were a critic of such haughty vindictiveness perched on a Times Square bar stool out there, she’d be a fool to admit her intentions.
— “Boyhood.” Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making chronicle of a boy’s journey to manhood is pretty much faultless, so realistic in its observations of the incremental changes that mark our lives, in fact, that “Boyhood’s few detractors grumble that “nothing happens” in the movie. Yes, in the same way that “nothing happens” in real life! But when Oscar-nominated supporting actor Ethan Hawke, as the dad, gives Ellar Coltrane’s title character the so-called “Black Album, a homemade CD set of songs recorded by the four Beatles after their breakup, he emphatically asserts, “There is no favorite Beatle!”
In fact, a 2014 CBS News poll ranked Paul McCartney as the most popular of the Fab Four, logging 35 percent to runner-up John Lennon’s 28 percent.
— “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Wes Anderson’s “unreality is more emotionally vibrant than the truth,” Anne Washburn writes in the introduction to the massive “Grand Budapest Hotel” coffee-table companion book. Fair enough. But if you’re going to put a big pink hostelry in the middle of the fictional Eastern European town of Nebelsbad, in the fictional country of Zubrowka, why call it the “Budapest”? That’s like putting the Great Philadelphia Hotel in the middle of the Rockies. Jeez.
“Whiplash.” A ferocious tale of the relationship between a monomaniacal music instructor, played by supporting-actor nominee J.K. Simmons, and his brilliant and ambitious jazz drumming protege, played by Miles Teller, Damien Chazelle’s film shows the kid paradiddling so hard that his hands begin to bleed. “That’s happened perhaps once or twice in my life, when I’ve had a blister that’s split,” Billy Brown, drummer with Ladytron, wrote in the Guardian. “They made that look like a scene from “Rocky — putting his bleeding hands in ice! They turn it into a sports movie. … “
And for a drummer who is supposed to be a budding Buddy Rich, Teller’s technique is off. So says Pete Erskine, former Weather Report percussionist and current director of the drumset-studies program at USC’s Thornton School of Music. “He’s a so-so drummer,” Erskine told a reporter for Los Angeles PBS station KCET’s website. “His hands are a mess in terms of technique, holding the sticks, etc., and no true fan of Buddy Rich would ever set up his or her drums in the manner that Teller’s character does. … A 10-inch tom? Highly angled? With a crash cymbal at that angle? Nope, doesn’t wash.”