When true events are the inspiration for a movie it’s almost always trumpeted in the preview. It sounds like bragging: “You will feel even more drawn into the story since it really happened!” I see it more as an excuse. “You might think this movie is boring, but it’s not our fault; it just happened this way.”
Look, your life is boring. Not for you; you’re living it. I like playing golf on a sunny day; I don’t like watching golf. I like solving potentials for the Schroedinger equation; watching someone else do so would be like scraping sandpaper over my face. We intuitively know this. And sometimes extraordinary things happen and it’s a story worth telling. But telling that story is hard.
Take, for example, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” The movie is an extremely faithful recreation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And it’s kind of excruciating to watch. The movie is less a coherent narrative filled with characters worthy of our empathy and more a string of events held together not by structure but by a history that exists outside the movie.
The same is true for bio-pics (this post was inspired by watching “The Aviator”). Though they’re better at establishing connections with their characters than “Tora! Tora! Tora!” could be, their downfall is trying to cover too much time. Events follow events and scenes follow scenes and none of it draws me in. It’s been five years since the last scene…are the characters even the same people? If I met myself five years ago one of us would punch the other in the face we’re so different.
That’s why the best movies based on true stories are loosely based on true stories. Look at “The Social Network.” I don’t know what the truth of the situation was. But I’m positive that it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the movie. And I don’t care. I didn’t watch the movie to get a history of Facebook. I watched the movie to be moved and how small emotions can inspire great deeds. If the movie showed a socially awkward Mark Zuckerburg sitting and programming and occasionally saying his roommate wasn’t a skilled Dungeon Master it wouldn’t be any good.
“Braveheart” won a slew of academy awards for infusing human drama into a story of political independence and it was almost entirely made up. “Amadeus” is an extraordinary story about jealously and a misplaced feeling that everything should be fair; Mozart is a crass buffoon with talent literally coming out of his ass and Salieri is a humble slave to his muse who toils in obscurity. In reality, if Mozart was The Beatles then Salieri was the Small Faces. And they respected each other. Mozart drank himself to death. But would you watch a movie where two musicians calmly respect each other for two hours and then one of them dies of alcohol poisoning?
Of course there are exceptions. “Pearl Harbor” chronicled the same event as “Tora! Tora! Tora!” only with a lot more fiction and a lot more “oh, dear god, why does this movie suck so much.” And “Patton” was basically two hours of real life quotes from the general and it’s breathtaking to behold.
Like always, it comes down to story. And when all else fails you can just make it up.