Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Rashomon had it right

Since it is my goal to be shocking and provocative, I am going to argue that you are better off watching a made-in-Hollywood film “based on actual events” than a documentary on the same topic.

Why on earth would I do this?

Well, partly to be ornery and partly because there is actually a point to be made.

Previously, I pointed out that there is a trend these days for many movies to be based on actual people and real occurrences, and I suggested that this is yet one more way to moviemakers to lure people into the cinemas with a pre-sold air of familiarity. Then I raised the question as to whether watching these movies was actually a good way to get information on real people and real events.

Sometimes we get a handy chance to compare a fictionalized film treatment to a non-fiction treatment. Kimberly Peirce’s Academy Award winning Boys Don’t Cry about the ill-fated Brandon Teena came out just a couple of years after the Swedish-produced documentary The Brandon Teena Story. The recent summer action hit The Perfect Storm was immediately preceded not at all coincidentally by showings of the documentary The Storm on cable’s The Discovery Channel. The film version of Frank McCourt’s celebrated autobiography Angela’s Ashes was anticipated by his nephew Conor’s documentary The McCourts of Limerick.

Now for people who are interested in the “true facts,” the documentaries have the advantage of showing the real people (in footage or in photographs) and sticking to what is actually known to have happened. Hollywood movies, on the other hand, cast actors to play the people, and sometimes use “composite characters” to simplify the plot (and perhaps avoid using real names so that the studio doesn’t get sued), and they don’t hesitate to invent scenes for dramatic effect. So, wouldn’t the documentary be a better source of historical info? Generally yes, but the problem is that documentary filmmakers also have their agenda. Like everyone else, they have their biases and they are probably making the film in the first place in order to make some point. The fact is, not every piece of information can be included, even in a documentary film, so some pieces will be included and some will be left out. Obviously, these choices directly effect the tone of the final product. And it’s hard to measure objectivity when everyone in the world in the world has a different opinion as to what “the truth” is.

But we tend to accept the documentary with less questioning because it is a documentary. The fact that it uses real source material rather than inventing images makes it seem more trustworthy.

Conversely, we are skeptical of the feature film from the get-go. I mean, we know that’s George Clooney up there captaining the boat. We know that this isn’t really exactly how it happened because, if it was, everyone in Gloucester, Massachusetts, would be exclaiming, “Hey! Did you ever notice how much that Billy Tyne looks like that actor George Clooney!” So only the hopelessly naïve are going to watch the movie and think that this is how it all really happened. As it happens though, digitally produced and enhanced monster waves aside, Clooney’s movie probably comes closer than a lot of them to following the actual facts.

(On the topic of cinematic naïveté, my Irish in-laws love to tell about the woman who, years ago in an early County Mayo movie theater, desperately tried to warn a movie cowboy about danger at his back by yelling in full voice from the back of the auditorium, “Look a hine ya, John-a Wayne!!”)

The tip-off for me that a movie biography had the cooperation of the film’s subject and so may not be totally objective and critical is when the subject is portrayed as, if not perfect, at least always morally in the right while everyone around him or her is a complete idiot and jerk or else a fawning friend or admirer. We have seen this approach in such fare as Patch Adams, Music of the Heart and Erin Brockovich. When I saw David Lynch’s lovely film The Straight Story, on the other hand, I knew that its subject Alvin Straight must have since died because the movie just watched him (and those around him) without blinking and left it totally up to the viewer to decide if he was a boob or some sort of wacky hero.

So we have a healthy, built-in skepticism of facts presented in feature films. And skepticism is good.

The harsh reality is that we will probably never get at the total truth of most by-gone events. After all, most people who live through them usually can’t agree totally on what happened. But these events, if stirring enough, do become tales that get retold (just as Shakespeare retold old tales to come up with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet) and become part of our collective lore. The meaning of the story is not in its literalness but in its symbolism and the lessons it teaches. And these things depend not so much on the facts as on the way the story is told.

And that is why you are (often) better off watching a (good) Hollywood movie about “actual events” than seeing a documentary.

-S.L., 13 July 2000

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