Films telling true stories must alter history to find truth, and that’s OK

“Find The Truth.” It’s a direction often used in acting classes to guide actors into discovering the basics motivations and traits of their characters. It’s also used for writers and directors to understand the true essence of a scene.

Work based on true stories have been with us for as long as anyone can remember. Yet recent works — particularly biopics — fall under tight scrutiny while similar, older films weren’t met with the same scrutiny. Many claim such inaccuracies ruin those respective works because particular events didn’t occur as depicted or just didn’t happen. Yet it’s unlikely that Shakespeare ripped all of his scenes for Julius Caesar straight from the headlines of March 15, 44 BC. Like Shakespeare, many filmmakers alter and elaborate for the sake of dramatic storytelling. But until recently, those creators haven’t received the same criticisms they get now.


Last year, Selma suffered from these complaints, in terms of public reception and awards nominations. Now Steve Jobs, one of the early prestige releases of 2016, bombed on its first wide release weekend following criticisms from those who knew the tech innovator. CBS has also discredited the upcoming “Rathergate” drama, Truth, to the point where the network will not advertise the film. This idea that dramatic truth is obligated to be the same as historical accuracy in fiction is nonsense if the core truth is successfully illustrated.

A wave of biopics were released in theaters in the early aughts, and one of the standouts from that period brings the first instance of this issue to mind. A Beautiful Mind (2001) tells the story of mathematician John Nash who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in game theory. The film also deals with paranoid schizophrenia, altering the truth for the sake of drama as did many of its modern counterparts.

However, the nitpicking of accuracy directed at the movie was far more subdued. The differences in truth don’t only come from the depictions of Nash’s disease, but also in how he came to his breakthrough thesis. Nash’s revision of Adam Smith’s economic theories are depicted as him figuring out how his friends could successfully seduce a group of women.

Director Ron Howard shot another scene illustrating Nash’s theory in a way that was likely much closer to the actual truth, but it didn’t make the final cut of the film. In the DVD commentary from Howard that accompanies the deleted footage, the director said the sequence was cut because he and the producers felt they achieved the same thing with the above scene.

The chosen scene is much sexier as it brings the audience closer to understanding the momentum of the breakthrough while simultaneously illustrating the theory itself. It’s much more compelling than showing Russell Crowe as Nash, pacing around a game board in the scene that was ultimately deleted.

Compare this to the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in last year’s Selma. Ava DuVernay’s film put him in apathetic opposition to Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo). I have no evidence to the veracity of the film’s portrayal of either Johnson or King. But I do know that the film’s depiction of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was enthralling because it found the emotional truth of those historical events.

Straight Outta Compton simplified the truth as well. Of course N.W.A weren’t accosted by police outside a recording studio during the recording of their landmark album, only to immediately write “Fuck Tha Police” shortly after. The point of the film’s portrayal of those events was to illustrate the song’s inspiration. Steve Jobs similarly captures this dramatic truth by encapsulating the most dramatic aspects of Jobs’ life into moments where he was likely the most stressed — before three of the most important product reveals of his career — creating palpable conflict and drama with the people in his life.


‘Straight Outta Compton’ simplifies the truth by saying “Fuck Tha Police” was written immediately after this scene with police officers.

Each of these films have been criticized for reshaping the truth. With each subsequent biopic released, it’s now commonplace to see posts and essays listing the inaccuracies of these movies. I imagine some of this is to capitalize on a particular moment in the zeitgeist, as most article ideas begin with a “news peg.” While part of this is the result of news outlets battling for clicks, the internet as a whole — not just websites — is home to those who revel in revealing inconsistencies, plot holes and inaccuracies. Just look to the often hilarious CinemaSins videos or Screen Junkies’ “Honest Trailers” YouTube series as prime examples.

By entering the theater with this mindset, though, we ruin not just the films themselves, but the moviegoing experience as a whole. Art is manipulative in that it provokes thought and emotion. Criticizing that is only valid when said manipulation isn’t earned. When Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb slightly alter historical details to find the dramatic truth in Selma or Aaron Sorkin distills Steve Jobs’ career down to its essence, those creators are doing what every great film or other piece of fiction does well. They tell a compelling story.

Truth, Suffragette, The 33, The Danish Girl, Joy, and Concussion are just a few of the many “based on a true story” films on the awards season horizon and there will surely be many more in years to come. Judging those works based on how closely they meet the historical truth of their subjects is a fruitless effort. We only need to look at how effective they are in finding the dramatic truth of their source material.

About Tyler Lyon

When Tyler isn't thinking about the lack of a Canadian presence in D2: The Mighty Ducks, whether Princess Leia can now be considered a Disney Princess or discovering 8-bit classics on his 3DS, he's cheering on the Cubs, Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, and Hawkeyes.