Every year around this time, we get a fresh wave of movies “based on a true story,” and every year we hash out how much is “true,” how much is “story,” and where, exactly, the goalposts have moved to. Are the niggling details important if a film conveys the greater import of a person’s life? Or does massaging the facts in the service of drama do a disservice to the down-and-dirty truth of that life?
It’s not an idle question. I sometimes think it’s every moviegoer’s duty upon returning home from a biopic that speaks to his or her deepest emotions to Google up the facts to the best of his or her ability. Which is to say that the penultimate scene of “The Danish Girl” struck me as almost too heart-wrenching to be real, and a very cursory tour of Wikipedia — I know, hardly the final source — indicates it’s simply not true. But if that scene cements the astonishing saga of Lili Elbe in the public consciousness, we’re supposed to say it’s worth it. And I’m not so sure.
Elbe was the first recipient of gender-reassignment surgery, at the dawn of the 1930s; born Einar Wegener, he identified as a woman decades before society even had the language to talk about such things. Eddie Redmayne, hot off his Oscar win for “The Theory of Everything,” plays Wegener/Elbe as an initially confident bohemian in post-World War I Copenhagen who enjoys shocking the bourgeoisie with his artist wife, Gerde Gottlieb (played by Alicia Vikander, of “Ex Machina”). What begins as prankish cross-dressing unlocks Einar’s lifelong inner identity, which ultimately leads to emotional torment, radically experimental surgery, and a drastic reappraisal of the couple’s relationship. Can Gerde still be married to Einar if Einar no longer exists?
The director is Tom Hooper, of “The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables,” which means that everything is tastefully appointed, gorgeously photographed, and arranged for our sympathetic edification; even the teacups here break discreetly. Redmayne and Vikander are both very good (as is Matthias Schoenarts, smoldering manfully in the corner as an art dealer pining for Gerde), and the middle sections of the movie, in which the couple forge painfully into unexplored territories of love and attachment and gender and personal identity, are as raw in their emotions as they’re tidy in the staging. The movie’s worth seeing for those scenes alone.
But maybe not for the final sequences, which rearrange Elbe’s life for maximum tear-jerkery and are perhaps based on David Ebershoff’s novelization of Elbe’s life, titled “The Danish Girl” and published in 2000. (I haven’t read the book.) Briefly, the movie says that Gerde and Lili were together to the last, when the truth was that the couple were divorced before Elbe’s surgeries (four, not the two in the movie) and that they certainly didn’t part as depicted in Hooper’s telling. The book is an acknowledged fictionalization; the movie presents itself as fact. Are the emotions torn from us in those final scenes counterfeit because the circumstances are? Perhaps if “The Danish Girl” weren’t so overripe in its insistence on moving us, this might be less of an issue. But as it stands, it’s hard not to feel played.
There are similar, if less egregious, pussyfootings in another film premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, about the 2004 “60 Minutes” scandal that brought down anchorman Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes, and that is titled, with no irony whatsoever, “Truth.” The movie’s a galvanizing, galloping drama about the death of news in a co-opted, corporatized modern marketplace, and it has at its center a terrific, live-wire performance by Cate Blanchett as Mapes. Writer-director James Vanderbilt positions her as a headstrong newshound pushed by the suits upstairs to rush a story on President George W. Bush’s sketchy youthful record in the Texas Air National Guard.
“Truth” stands by Mapes’s conviction that her story was on-target even as the documents supporting it were picked to pieces, and it makes a reasonably convincing case on its own dramatized terms. But it fails to acknowledge what it makes plain for us to see, which is that the story should never have made it onto the air without more time, more vetting, and more confirmation. And in that context, the presentation of Rather as a great god of TV news’ golden era seems a trifle naïve, especially since he’s played by Robert Redford as an impression of Robert Redford, more or less. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing, arguing with, and taking its depressing lessons to heart.
Maybe the life of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo didn’t hew to the letter of “Trumbo,” also premiering at Toronto. Maybe it did; I’ll get back to you after I do a little more research. But director Jay Roach, working from a script by John McNamara, seems to take pains to line up the names and dates right, and while his movie is stuck with a conventional bio-pic structure, it’s made and acted with a juicy, inside-Hollywood verve that puts it over.
Or maybe I’m just a sucker for stories about the movies’ golden age. “Trumbo,” which features a roistering title performance by Bryan Cranston (”Breaking Bad”), covers the era from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, when anti-Communist hysteria rose, purged the film community of anyone who’d even looked twice at a copy of The Daily Worker, and all too slowly subsided. The cast is a deep, deep bench: Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk as fellow screenwriters; Helen Mirren as powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, the film’s chief villain; Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson; John Goodman and Stephen Root, hilarious as a pair of Poverty Row producers who back the banned Trumbo even as he was winnings Oscars under fake names for films like “Roman Holiday.” Back home and relatively underutilized are Diane Lane and Elle Fanning as Trumbo’s wife and daughter; lesser-known actors are aces as a strapping Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), an amusingly Teutonic Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), and so forth.
Dalton Trumbo was a character of the first order — a firebrand, an intellectual, a dandy, and a hell of a writer — and Cranston tears into the role as if it were a prime steak at Chasen’s. He’s great fun, the movie’s a solid history lesson, and I’m sure it cuts factual corners in the pursuit of a more streamlined and memorable experience. So why am I less bothered by the potential distortions of “Trumbo” than I am by “The Danish Girl” and “Truth”? It may simply be that prevarications come with this territory. As a producer tells Trumbo early in the movie, “You just signed a record-breaking three-year contract to make [expletive] up.”