This week's column is based on a true story. Did I get your attention? Why is it that all the awards organizations love true stories so much? So many of this year's award contenders are based on true stories: Public Enemies, The Damned United, A Woman in Berlin, Julie and Julia (229 screens), Coco Before Chanel (145 screens), Amelia (1975 screens), Bright Star (25 screens) and even The Informant! (62 screens), as well as up-and-coming contenders like Invictus and The Young Victoria. And even if they're not specifically "true" stories, we have movies like The Last Station, about a real-life person, or movies like Brothers and The Messenger with torn-from-the-headlines plots.
It's getting so bad that, while watching it, I was even wondering whether Up in the Air was based on a true story. And certainly Precious seems based on a true story, even though it's very clearly "based on the novel PUSH by Sapphire." But why do we need this? Is it a cushion? What happens if we're exposed to pure imagination for a change? Would Star Trek have been better if it had been based a true story? What about Up? Could those balloons have really hauled that house halfway around the world? Probably not, but nobody questioned it for a second, and it doesn't matter. Take Inglourious Basterds. It is set during a real war and features real characters, but it's a complete fiction. While I was watching it, I couldn't help thinking of two other films, both "based on a true story" films. They were both too recent for Tarantino to have seen before going into production, but they make an interesting comparison. The first was Edward Zwick's Defiance, about a band of Jews who hide out in the woods and prepare to battle the evil Nazis. But Zwick made his film with a heavily constricting, grimly serious tone that squashed the characters and the drama behind the great importance of it all. Tarantino's freedom fighters have a great deal more fun.
And in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie (2008), Tom Cruise a bunch of German soldiers team up to try and kill Hitler and Goebbels, but since it was "based on a true story," everybody already knew how the story would turn out. In Tarantino's version, the good guys get to win, and it feels so good! Who cares if it really happened or not? The fact is that even "based on a true story" movies change things around and condense characters and whatever else to make all the events fit into the format of a fictional movie. That's why it's "based on" and not a "true story."
Now remember back to Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo (1996), which topped most critics' year-end lists and earned several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (and even placed on the first AFI Top 100 list). During the opening crawl, it claims that it is based on true events, which turned out to be an out-and-out lie. Did this claim help get the movie most of its initial acclaim? Perhaps. Were people angry when the lie was exposed? Nope. Why? Because it's a great movie, either way. And that's the truth.