Best of 2015: The truth is, even movies based on real life are made for the drama, not factual faithfulness

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James in “Spotlight”
“Spotlight,” starring Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James as Boston Globe journalists, is surprisingly accurate about both the physical and psychological ways reporters work.
(Kerry Hayes / Open Road Films)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction — the jury is still out on that one — but it’s certainly as alluring as fiction when it comes to the predilections of feature filmmakers.

More movies than ever, it seems, showed up in 2015 with some variation of the words “based on a true story” typed on the screen to place audiences in the proper frame of mind before the action begins.

Political dramas including “Trumbo,” “Truth,” “Black Mass,” “The Big Short” and “Bridge of Spies,” not to mention such personal epics as “Love & Mercy,” “The Danish Girl,” “The Lady in the Van” and “Straight Outta Compton,” emphasized that the stories they were telling had actually happened.

READ MORE: 'Brooklyn’ tops Kenneth Turan’s best films of 2015


Then there were films such as “Beasts of No Nation,” “Sicario” and “99 Homes” that told fictional stories inspired by real-world events.

Other films were either accused of blurring or were happy to blur the fact/fiction line. “Concussion” was taken to task, erroneously as it turns out, for softening the impact of its true story to curry favor with the National Football League.

And “The Martian,” an undeniably fictional story about a beleaguered astronaut left behind on the Red Planet, got a lot of mileage by boasting that it got the scientific facts of its putative adventure as right as they could be.

It seems that having a tale to tell that is based on actual events has the potential to put viewers into a receptive frame of mind. We all like to be amazed at the strange and wonderful things fellow human beings have gone through, and film is all too happy to help us along.


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However, like everything else about the moviemaking process, this “based on a real story” tag line can cut both ways. Just ask the makers of two of the films on my 10-best list, “Spotlight” and “Steve Jobs,” whose reception as founded-on-fact dramas couldn’t have been more different.

The saga of how the Boston Globe won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for uncovering decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, “Spotlight” went to great and justly applauded lengths to get the details of its milieu correct.

Director Tom McCarthy and his team managed to do what many people, including the journalists depicted, thought almost impossible. They were surprisingly accurate about both the physical and psychological ways reporters work, how they tirelessly interview, take endless notes and wade through mountains of material.

Because it had done its homework, taking care with costumes and even letting the real-life reporters vet the dialogue for false notes, “Spotlight” got as much benefit as you can get from being based on fact.

What “Steve Jobs” went through was vastly different. Though it made no bones about being a dramatization, no more an accurate record of the celebrated digital entrepreneur’s life than Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” tells the real story of the 11th century Scottish ruler, it ran into the bane of all based-on-fact films: a determined special interest group with blood in its eye.

In “Steve Jobs’” case, that was the media-savvy denizens of Silicon Valley, aggrieved at what they saw as a less-than-flattering portrait of their prophet, people who rose as one to say that this was not the Steve Jobs they knew (as if anyone had said it was).

Personally, I go to feature films, even those based on fact, for the drama, not for factual faithfulness. I didn’t like “The Martian” more for its scientific reliability, and I didn’t like “Steve Jobs” less for its imagination.


As I’ve said before, and will no doubt have occasion to say again, movies glamorize, they romanticize, they tell stories, they make things larger than life. Which is why, when it comes down to it, we love them so much in the first place.

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