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The truth about movies based on true stories

Edward Snowden (left) with Glenn Greenwald in “Citizenfour.” Radius TWC

The best picture Oscar nominations, scheduled to be revealed on Thursday morning, will no doubt include several biopics and pictures about historical events. Scrolling through Fandango, finding “American Sniper,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Mr. Turner,” “Foxcatcher,” “Unbroken,” and “The Imitation Game,” etc., you might ask — what else is there to choose from?

Indeed, studios saturate cinemas with these films toward the end of the year, in time to qualify for Academy Award consideration and late enough to ensure that the Academy membership, whose average age is 62, will remember them. Because these are the films that win Oscars.

Inevitably, such films draw complaints about factual accuracy. These criticisms are often driven by Hollywood – and partisan – politics. In Gregg Kilday’s Jan. 13, 2013, Hollywood Reporter article “Oscar’s Dirty Tricks: Inside the Whisper Campaign Machine,” he writes about how Oscar front-runners such as “A Beautiful Mind” (2002), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), and even “Lincoln” (2012) suffered attacks on their veracity.

Many of this year’s Academy contenders have also been taken to task for errors of fact. But the prime target appears to be Ana DuVarnay’s “Selma,” a dramatization of Martin Luther King’s 1965 march that has been a favorite for multiple Oscar nominations. A Dec. 26 Washington Post op-ed by Joseph Califano, former aide to President Lyndon Johnson, accused the film of misrepresenting Johnson’s role in the event.


DuVarnay responded to the charges on Twitter, but the oft-repeated defense against such criticism is that this a feature based on real events, not a documentary.

Which raises the question, what is a documentary?

Over the last few years documentaries have stretched the genre’s conventions. The 2008 best documentary Oscar winner “Man on Wire” included numerous re-created scenes. Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” nominated last year, consisted of re-creations put on by the participants themselves. This year Rithy Panh employed clay figures to re-create his memories of the Cambodian genocide, and Signe Baumane relied on animation in “Rocks in My Pockets” to convey the experience of suicidal depression.


Even this year’s favorite to win, Laura Poitras’s “Citizenfour,” scrupulously journalistic as it seems, whittled down more than 20 hours of footage for one sequence alone. Like most filmmakers, Poitras shapes her material into a narrative designed for a particular purpose.

What about “cinema verite”? Frederick Wiseman, director of this year’s “National Gallery,” whose films would seem to fall into that category, scoffs at the term. “My movies are mosaic narratives,” he said when I interviewed him in November. “They have a dramatic structure. They’re made up of sequences that are shot over a period of time and organized thematically in the editing.”

More extreme is Werner Herzog, whose “Encounters at the End of the World” was nominated for best documentary in 2009. He has written that in his films he seeks “a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.”

In a way the camera always lies. But an honest picture tells the truth.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com .