Facts, Truth and Accuracy: 24 Lies Per Second

There are a couple of Oscar-bait biopics entering wide release this weekend: Ava Duvernay's Selma (which spotlights an important moment in the civil rights movement and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.) and Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game (which examines the life of computer science pioneer Alan Turing). Both movies (the former in particular) have faced intense criticism from various circles for taking liberties with history, leading to the usual glut of social media arguments and “What Biopic A Gets Wrong About B” articles. It's fair – even necessary – to point out the differences between a film's version of history and reality, but it's also worth noting that “accuracy” is by no means an indicator of quality.

I haven't seen either Selma or The Imitation Game yet (I plan to catch both soon), but I've seen plenty of other “based on/inspired by a true story” flicks released this year. Unbroken, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher... the list goes on. All of these movies either take some serious liberties with the facts or excise crucial pieces of information for the sake of creating a more effective dramatic experience. There are certain instances where one could argue that hewing closer to reality might have been a stronger creative decision, but hewing closer to reality isn't automatically a stronger creative decision. Foxcatcher in particular skews a lot of the facts of the case it presents, but it does so in order to better emphasize the film's thematic ideas. The real case – while arguably more fascinating than the one presented by the movie – is murkier and less accommodating of tidy theories about why certain individuals acted the way they did.

I'm fond of quoting Werner Herzog on many different subjects (in fairness, he's one of the most quotable human beings on the planet), and in this instance I'm reminded of a statement from his Minnesota Declaration: “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

Films are poor vehicles for facts. The very nature of the medium prevents the objective presentation of facts. Even if every angle is carefully researched and every point-of-view is thoughtfully considered, there are creative decisions which will inevitably (and perhaps even unintentionally) tip the scales one way or another. The specific camera angle chosen for a shot, the inflection in an actor's voice and the music underscoring an important scene all push moments that “really happened” away from the realm of reality. Even something like Katherine Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty – for my money, one of the most remarkably even-handed, naturalistic and objective cinematic “true stories” of recent years – is constantly distilling complex matters into simpler ones, creating composite characters, whittling away facts which would clutter the story and making creative choices which inform our view of certain moments in a way that actually witnessing those events for ourselves (or indeed, even reading an official account of them) would not.

Thankfully, movies are often extraordinarily good at capturing truth, which is an entirely different thing from facts (as Mr. Herzog eloquently indicates). 12 Years a Slave may have altered certain details of Solomon Northup's life, but in doing so captured invaluable, difficult truths about the horrors of a dark chapter in American history. JFK contains many pieces of false or distorted information, yet it started a national conversation on a topic which was, at the very least, not half as simple as the official record would have us believe. Glory contains more than a few historical inaccuracies, and yet serves as a moving testament to a group of individuals who might have otherwise been forgotten by the majority of the country. On top of all of that, all three of these movies are extraordinary dramatic experiences, an element which seems all but lost on the stuffed shirts who dismiss something like Lawrence of Arabia because it's “inaccurate.”

Facts are essential, and we should educate ourselves on them regularly. Yes, it's true that many will accept the things they witness in a film “based on a true story” as facts, perhaps leading to widespread misperception of certain matters. It's also true that there are certain factual alterations which are genuinely inexcusable (regardless of their dramatic effectiveness), and we can have a different conversation about what actually crosses that line. However, to complain that a historical drama contains inaccuracies is essentially to complain that a movie is a movie. Let's stop concerning ourselves so much with whether or not a movie is accurate, and focus more on whether or not it's truthful.