If you haven’t heard already, “42,” the Jackie Robinson biopic that was partly shot here in Chattanooga at historic Engel Stadium, debuted in theaters Friday. And boy, are we Chattanoogans proud. It’s all I’ve heard about, and for good reason. The film has been praised for its historical accuracy and, at the same time, its ability to tell a compelling story, which is an area where other recent films based on true stories have been criticized.
“Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln” have been attacked by critics for liberties their respectful directors have taken with history. But, if altering a few historical details for the sake of art makes a story more interesting and, in turn, gains more viewers, is that so bad? Is Hollywood doing us—the movie-watching audience—a favor by exposing us to history in an entertaining way, even if, in the process, it dilutes the truth? Or are some Hollywood writers and directors being lazy in their approach? After all, if some films can be factual and entertaining, as with “42,” can’t all of them be?
Here’s the thing. I might have never known about Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who masterminded the plot to pose as a Hollywood film crew to rescue six Americans stranded in Iran, the subject on which the film “Argo” is based, had it not been for Ben Affleck’s vision.
Or would I?
If Ben Affleck hadn’t made the changes to the story that he did, would the film have done as well as it did at the box office, not to mention win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars? Or would the film have faded into obscurity, along with Mendez’s heroic act? History gives us great stories. But sometimes, it takes a great Hollywood movie to make those stories known.
And while we’re on the topic, why all of the fuss now? Why has this slate of recent films gotten such uproar from audiences and critics when Hollywood has been doing this for years? I can think of many films based on true stories from the past 30 years that have taken liberties with history for the sake of telling, what Hollywood thinks, is a better story. A few examples are “The Untouchables,” “Hollywoodland” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” to name a few. These films followed one of three popular Hollywood formulas for translating a true story to film: combining many characters into one fictional character (as is in “Zero Dark Thirty”), rearranging events for the sake of dramatic storytelling, or adding in or leaving out specific events to invoke an inspirational message or some sort of life lesson.
So, it’s clear that sometimes we don’t get the whole story when we see a movie based on true events. But is that why we go to the movies, for a history lesson? Or do we go to the movies to be entertained? Can’t we and shouldn’t we have both? What’s Hollywood’s role in all of this? Does the film industry have a responsibility to its audiences and to those people on which the movies are based to tell the most accurate story possible? Or is it better for directors and writers to have a fair amount of artistic license when it comes to telling these true stories? What do you think?
By the way, if you’re curious like I am about the authenticity of movies based on true stories, check this site out. It does a good job of deciphering Hollywood storytelling from what actually happened.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.