Believe it or Not! When “Based on a True Story” Goes Bad…

Posted on 12 February 2010 by ShepRamsey

Every time I decide that I’m going to put forth an effort to unseat myself from my high horse of movie snobbery, something occurs to propel me right back up there.  Most recently, it was the inclusion of the inspirational football flick The Blind Side on the Academy Awards’ 2009 Best Picture ballot.

Now, I can’t really speak too high and mighty about this one, as I haven’t yet seen it.  The trailers and talk surrounding it communicated quite clearly that it was all sorts of not-my-thing.  It instantly seemed to me like it took the wrong—and borderline demeaning—route in telling its story by putting the rich white lady in the foreground, and the black kid—more the center of the story—in the background.  I could be wrong, but I have my doubts.

I’ve been supposed to see it with my dad (and isn’t it such a “dad movie?”) for awhile now, but I’ve been dodging it left and right.  Had I known it was actually going to be an Oscar contender, I probably would have gotten it out of the way sooner.

To me, it looks like a movie built specifically for people like my dad—people that don’t really care about movies, but just want a nice, pleasant story to uplift them while they pass a couple hours.  And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that—among all of the things that film is capable of, the powerful emotions that they can produce, to uplift and inspire should without question be one of them.  Although I might contend that some people are just a bit too easily inspired.

The Blind Side is the kind of movie that people who don’t care about movies walk out of saying “that was a great movie.” And somehow, I take it personally, as if they’re treading on my territory with their uninformed opinions on what makes a movie great.

Because it’s my passion, I make it my business to defend my stance on what I deem a great movie or a terrible movie by writing articles like this that few probably even read (I mean, honestly, did anyone actually read all 2500 words of my bitter Avatar review?).  I like to analyze technique, style, story, character, and all that other crap that most people normally don’t care much about.

However, when I ask most people what it is that’s great about a movie like The Blind Side—or any number of “inspirational” stories, mostly sports-related—I always get the same response: “It’s a true story,” they say.  Every time; it never fails.

“It’s a true story” is the brain-eating amoeba that’s sucking away at my life force.  To this claim, I always say “Just because it’s a true story doesn’t mean that it was well told or even worth telling.”  Snobby, yes, but I can’t help it; it really bugs me.

First off, at this point, it should go without saying that any family-aimed movie about sports is going to be based on a true story—throw a rock in this country and you’ll hit a true-life inspirational sports story.  It’s just a fact.

Hell, even the ones aren’t so inspirational, like Friday Night Lights, are even based on true stories.

And sometimes it can work in reverse!  Where it gets really scary is when a movie like The Mighty Ducks—pure Disney fiction—is released and then a year later, life imitates art and there actually is an NHL team called The Mighty Ducks!

Some aren’t, though, and that’s usually a good sign by my standards.  For my money, the best sports movie of last year—probably longer—was Drew Barrymore’s Whip It.  That was a movie that got a lot done with its characters in a fun and original way, and overcame the threat of predictability by staying fresh, small-scale, and touchingly personal.  You don’t get that from any of these “true story” movies.

But aside from the fact that nearly all sports movies have a basis in non-fiction, it should also go without saying that any movie that sells itself on the tagline of “Based on a True Story,” is taking many, many liberties with its source material.  In fact, I’d say that once horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Haunting in Connecticut started sporting that slogan on their advertising materials, the whole thing officially became a gimmick.

Watch out, though, because there are two ways that they try to get you.  One is the aforementioned “Based on a True Story,” and then there’s always “Inspired by a True Story.”

To give you an idea of which films merit which taglines, the producers of Texas Chainsaw knew there wasn’t any way that a claim like “Based” could hold any water, so they chose the least controversial means possible by saying “Inspired”—which could really mean anything.  And really, since Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Silence of the Lambs, and Psycho, were all inspired by the same serial killer, Ed Gein, it’s a wonder it wasn’t used sooner.  There was actually a low-budget little-see biopic of the man, appropriately titled Ed Gein, which sold itself as being based on the killer that inspired those films.

At the end of the day, however, the average American moviegoer isn’t going to be too terribly discerning between “based” vs. “inspired” when “true story” is in the equation.  Hell, it’s such a killer sell that it was even part of the title of the 2005 Kurt Russell-Dakota Fanning horse movie Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, which is probably the most annoying title this side of Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire.

Now, I can completely sympathize when it comes to why the appeal of being told a true story is so strong.  It always adds an extra level of excitement, especially for a story that is practically unbelievable.  This past fall saw a couple of my recent favorite “true story” opening title cards, including Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, which said what it needed to say, and ended on “So there.”  Also there was Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, which stated “More of this is true than you would believe.”  It sort of gets to the heart and soul of why movies that tell true stories are so fascinating in the first place.

But my problem with nonfiction films is that nine times out of ten they are so busy concerning themselves with all of the literal facts of the story that any potential structure of theme, substance, and an all-encompassing universal truth is completely lost.

Take almost any biographical film released in the last ten years, for instance.  My go-to is always Ray, Taylor Hackford’s biopic about Ray Charles, which was nominated for several major Oscars, and won for Jamie Foxx’s performance.  My opinion on Ray was that it was a complete mess of a movie, and didn’t really make me learn anything terribly interesting or insightful about the man, his life, his music, or his anything.  It was in such a rush to cover as much of his life as it possibly could, that it had absolutely no focus and was just a pain and a bore to sit through.  It was a “true story,” yes, but it was all story and no truth.

Conversely, there have been several movies that have successfully mined some kind of larger truth—be it about art, communities, one person, or even humanity as a whole—through stories that are not only fiction, but deliberate distortions of literal truth.

First, there’s Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, a very outside-the-box biopic of Bob Dylan, in which the various forms of Dylan’s public persona are played in vaguely connected stories by six different actors, including a woman (Cate Blanchett) and an eleven-year-old black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin).  None of the characters are named Bob Dylan, and he isn’t directly referenced once throughout the film.  I’m Not There is a film that found a greater truth inside a pack of lies, and was all the more fascinating for it.

Similarly, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg was a documentary about his hometown, the Canadian city of Winnipeg, as told through truths, lies, tall tales, and local legends, recounting them all as literal fact.  In doing so, he created a sentiment that gets to the heart of the town, while playing just as poignantly with regards to anyone’s hometown.

Fargo is another great example, perhaps the greatest of all.  The film begins with a title card which reads that the events that follow are all true, and only the names have been changed.  Of course, this isn’t the case at all.  Fargo is almost entirely fictional, loosely inspired by a few different true-life stories.  To quote Ethan Coen, “We wanted to do a true story, but we didn’t know any, so we made one up.”

And with that film, the Coens proved that the claim of a true story is little more than a gimmick—an effective one, however, especially in the case of Fargo, which I remember marveling at when I saw it for the first time, thinking that it was all true.

And yet, if Fargo really were a true story, do you honestly think those characters would have been shaped as finely as they are?  Do you think we would see the subplot involving Marge and her old friend, Mike Yanagita?  Would we have really found the sadness and humanity of such a brutal and disturbing story if the filmmakers had merely been trying to make a true crime movie?

I guess it depends on the filmmaker, and in the case of the Coens, in all honesty, we probably would have seen those details come through in some regard, and been treated to a fascinating film nonetheless.  Why, just look at David Fincher’s excellent Zodiac, probably the best and most haunting true crime movie in recent years.  It can be done, but it takes care, precision, and thought (and in some cases, a 160-minute runtime).  In the hands of lesser filmmakers, would the “true story” of Fargo have gotten the treatment that the story deserved?

Not likely.  A literal “true story” would have easily been all bleakness, with little depth or complexity, or attention to character.  The Coens—cynical though they may usually be—know that that’s not truth, and is of little value.  They set out to invent a true story, and in my opinion, that’s absolutely what they did.

For now, though, I’m just going to have to face the fact that a hell of a lot of people really love The Blind Side… because it’s a true story.  And who knows?—maybe I will, too.  I really, really, doubt it, but I’ve been surprised before.  And that’s my favorite part of Oscar season, anyway—seeing a bunch of movies I might have otherwise never seen, that turn out to be pretty damn good.  Whether they’re based on a true story or not.                           

24 Comments For This Post

  1. The Heretic Says:

    Often, when people say ‘that was a great movie’, they don’t necessarily mean that the elements of the movie, or the totality of the movie was ‘great’ – they mean that they were entertained by the movie. For example, I didn’t think ‘Avatar’ was a great movie (too predictable and preachy for one thing), but I was very entertained by it (except for the eyestrain). In ten years I may not be so entertained by it – it may just be ho-hum. Right now it was an interesting demonstration of what is possible.

    This is something that I think many movie critics don’t get when they write reviews about movies; a movie can be a mediocre or even bad movie from their point of view, but be a smash in the box office because people were very entertained by it. After all, that is what most of us go to movies for – to be entertained, not to think, not to evaluate the plot elements, or the photography – to have a good time with some popcorn and Pepsi.

  2. Fayetteville Video Says:

    I thought Blind Side was pretty good, even though I never saw it.

  3. Truth Sayer Says:

    It’s hard to believe that you can review a movie without having seen it. I normally don’t go to these kinds of movies, not my thing, but this movie was very entertaining. How truthful? No idea. Lighten up, it seems you like to rip movies just for the controversy.

  4. Pretentious Says:

    I’m glad you judge a movie you haven’t seen yet. What a waste.

  5. Allthatsgeek Says:

    So you havn’t seen the movie, yet you feel you can accuratley tell us who may and may not be at the foreground of the movie, simply based on the commercials you’ve seen? Maybe they are pushing Sandra Bullock, the only notable name in the movie. This article is self aggrandizing (and no I honestly didn’t read your Avatar reciew, regardless of it’s length and tone towards the film). It sounds to me like this critic needs to step off their soapbox and do their job. Review movies they have actually SEEN. I could be wrong, but I have my doubts.

  6. Tom Says:

    FYI: the Ducks are based in Anaheim. You know, where Disneyland is. Disney created the team, sorta like the way some candy company started making the candies mentioned in Willy Wonka. Now they’re the Anaheim Ducks (no longer the Mighty Ducks) as Disney sold the team in 2005.

    So anyway, it’s not so much life imitates art as marketing imitates marketing.

  7. Anon Says:

    i love when people form opinions around movies they never even saw….yay

  8. johnnyboy Says:

    I didn’t see it either… true story.

  9. Michael Kaufman Says:

    The post epitomizes all that is wrong with the internet. A movie critic – who hasn’t seen the film – is perfectly comfortable spouting out all sorts of opinions about the movie.

    Imagine if someone did this in any other forum. They would be laughed off of whatever medium they were presenting their “opinion” in.

    But on the internet you don’t need to see the source material to have an opinion on it. Which is why – even though I didn’t bother to read the rest of this posting after the first few paragraphs – I am perfectly comfortable saying that, in my opinion, this entire post is stupid.

  10. John Says:

    Was All the Right Moves based on a true story? I feel that you’ve mistakenly neglected to mention Breach which just scares the bejesus out of me and wish that that wasn’t a true story!

  11. jordan Says:

    COME ON! You haven’t even seen the movie! How can you judge a movie that you haven’t seen? That’s incredibly arrogant and just plain stupid. Do you have any integrity? There are a thousand ways to judge a movie, one of which is, do you just plain like it? what a waste of time reading this was

  12. Fadhil Says:

    I read the comments here, and man, what a bunch of crap flinging retards you guys are. The OP didn’t actually *review* the film he hadn’t seen, he just said that he *thinks* it might suck based on his movie preferences. It’s called “first impressions”. I think we all have those. What the article was really pointing out,is the fact that a lot of “true stories” don’t really have what it takes to make a good movie. For a bunch of idiots who’re mad about reviewers reviewing stuff they’ve never experienced, you should have read the damn article first, don’t you think?

  13. Jag Pop Says:

    People want to *connect* with a story.

    You connect thru:
    “I like to analyze technique, style, story, character, and all that other crap that most people normally don’t care much about.”

    WHY you connect that way…well, who cares?

    Psychologists might care, or people that make their living through psychology, salesmen or gigolos, or even your dad, maybe. So those are the people that might actually read your entire article. Me? I like to read the last word or two of each paragraph in case there is a clue to winning some Secret Decoder Ring Prize.

    “Secret Decoder Ring Prize ?!”, you might ask, if you read e-opinions on Saturday before your second cup of coffee. Take for instance the movie Michael Clayton. That movie is Chock Full of little nuggets
    (“I need my coffee!!”).

    Michael Clayton itself is an anagram for “Ally To Mechanic”.

    If you have watched anything about ripping off Vegas then Mechanic just
    jumps off the page for you. (Don’t bother Googling, here is the answer. A mechanic is someone that plies their skill at being a manipulator. In business it is a “Fixer”.)

    Now if you really, really want to get into Secret Decoder Ring stuff dig around in that box of discount DVD at Walmart and pull out a Michael Clayton. Fast forward a bit into the movie where Clayton is leaving the seedy gambling den and then FREEZE FRAME! On the inside of the door to
    the gambling den is all kinds of graffiti. Or rather it is disguised as graffiti. Enough said, except don’t ignore what is on some of the license plates in the movie.

    Ok, are you still connected with me?

    Like I said, people want to connect with a story. And that is why people say “It is based on a true story”. They are saying “it connects with me”.

    People have this feeling that their lives are true stories and so a movie
    that also claims to be a true story is sort of about them.

    Why do people think their lives are true stories? Who cares? Ask a psychologist.

  14. al Says:

    The writer is a horrible writer he says: “First off, at this point, it should go without saying that any family-aimed movie about sports is going to be based on a true story—throw a rock in this country and you’ll hit a true-life inspirational sports story. It’s just a fact.”

    Then goes on about ones that were not true stories such as:

    “And sometimes it can work in reverse! Where it gets really scary is when a movie like The Mighty Ducks—pure Disney fiction—is released and then a year later, life imitates art and there actually is an NHL team called The Mighty Ducks!

    Some aren’t, though, and that’s usually a good sign by my standards. For my money, the best sports movie of last year—probably longer—was Drew Barrymore’s Whip It.” What about your “fact”?

  15. anon Says:

    “And somehow, I take it personally, as if they’re treading on my territory with their uninformed opinions on what makes a movie great”

    jesus your an asshole it was actually painful for me to read this article I had to stop. It’s common knowledge that people like bad movies (Michael Bay) but you don’t need to be a self righteous dick about it.

  16. ShepRamsey Says:

    I’m really a bit stunned at the reaction here. I honestly meant no harm with this article, but I feel like some people are just looking for something to get mad about. First, most are criticizing me for reviewing a movie I haven’t seen– I’m NOT reviewing it. This article is NOT a review. I talked about The Blind Side and my first impressions of it very briefly in the beginning, but that was merely a springboard for what the article WAS about. If you have issues with anything else that I say, please make it known.

    I think many of you are mistaking my tone for combative, and ignoring the levity, irony, and even the blatantly obvious self-deprication.

    @al — I understand that not every single sports movie is based on a true story, it was an exaggeration. I apologize if I offended you with that. The “fact” that I stated was that there are more than a lot of true-life inspirational sports stories around the country. The Mighty Ducks thing was a JOKE–as if to say “even the ones that AREN’T true stories become true after the fact.” (rimshot!) And I talked about Whip It to illustrate that they don’t HAVE to be true stories to be affecting or inspirational.

    @anon — Your quote of mine seems to ingnore the tone of irony about what I was saying. I intended for the words “And somehow” and “as if” to demonstrate that this line of thinking was completely irrational and snobby. I don’t see how acknowleding that makes me a self righteous dick. I’m trying to speak to a universal irrational feeling of superiority that almost all movie snobs have, and question it. You’re missing the entire point of what I’m saying.

    @John — I completely agree with you about Breach. That’s a fantastic movie. I mentioned Zodiac in my article as a sort of peace offering so that people wouldn’t think that I was completely condemning all nonfiction films. I guess that didn’t work.

    @Michael Kaufman — “But on the internet you don’t need to see the source material to have an opinion on it. Which is why – even though I didn’t bother to read the rest of this posting after the first few paragraphs – I am perfectly comfortable saying that, in my opinion, this entire post is stupid.”
    If only you practiced what you preached…

  17. Quaid Says:

    Yeah, Jon….I mean, how can you review a movie when you don’t even review the movie!? How arrogant! This review sucks not because you didn’t see the movie but because you didn’t even REVIEW it!

    Wait, it isn’t a review? Nevermind. :)

  18. Sam Says:

    Yawn, another stuck-up critic whose views are totally opposite from that of the general audience.

  19. Rachel Says:

    Wow. That’s all I can say. Great article Shep. Even more fun was all the ignorance in the comments – Quaid aside.

  20. car ramrod Says:

    I didn’t know that a critic’s job was to reflect the sentiments of the audience and then go out and cheerlead for popular films. With all the vitriol aimed at Shep, I advise him to obtain a rape horn for his own safety.

  21. car ramrod Says:

    I didn’t know that a critic’s job was to reflect the sentiments of the audience and then go out and cheer lead for popular films. With all the vitriol aimed at Shep, I advise him to obtain a rape horn for his own safety.

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