"Based on a true story..."
In some productions, that’s the first thing audience members see. Once a movie flashes those five words across the screen, viewers instantly approach the film through a different lens. The movie they’re viewing is no longer a work of fiction that was written and directed by someone’s sole cinematic vision. Now, they’re watching an intimate account of something that really happened, retold through the technology of cinema. Modern films that recount true events are drastically different from those in the early years of cinema, where movies would literally capture events or aspects of everyday life. Nowadays, films based on reality employ actors that bear striking resemblance to the characters within the film's story or build sets that transport viewers to the event’s setting, all while following the relevant timeline essential for understanding the context or premise of the film.
These films are a big deal, and usually score pretty big at the box office. Despite attempts for movie studios to accurately portray the stories they’re producing, many still argue that accurate portrayal is impossible due to the nature of the production process for feature films. Of all historical 2019 Oscar contenders, only two did not prompt widespread cries of inaccuracy. However, even movies that are later proven to have little factual merit are considered hugely successful. Titanic (1997) is one of the biggest box–office hits of all time, but loaded with historical inaccuracies. Examining Hollywood historical fiction presents a larger question: Is it ethical for movies to rewrite history?
Historical fiction films are done for a number of genres. Thrillers like Zodiac (2007) illustrate real crime cases that bring infamous killers to the forefront of new media, with the characters embodied by some very familiar Hollywood faces. Biopics like Hidden Figures (2016) bring lesser–known stories of prominent figures in American history to the big screen. These films strike a special nerve with people when they know that it’s a true story. True stories resonate deeper with viewers, regardless of the feelings they evoke.
"True story"films are somewhat prioritized over original screenplays because there’s a heightened urge for filmmakers to “get things right" in regards to the history. Studios will try to accomplish this in a variety of ways. For example, if the subjects are alive during time of production, they could be consulted as primary sources for the script. Other movies are based on books written by their subjects, like The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Sometimes the film's subjects produce the movie themselves, like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton (2015). Actors also feel the pressure when playing a historical figure, as they have to cater their personality towards the real–life image of the character, rather than a fictional image that they can create on the screen.
So how do directors superimpose their creative vision over a set of factual tales? To answer this question, I’m going to juxtapose the creative and narrative aspects of two highly successful films that fit into this genre. One tells a true linear story, while the other puts a creative twist on a real sequence of events. These movies are James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari (2019) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood (2019) (OUATIH).
Ford v Ferrari tells the honest stories of car designer Carroll Shelby and racer Ken Miles, and their relationship with the Ford Motor Company’s fiery rivalry against Enzo Ferrari. The 2019 drama floored viewers with how it detailed Ford’s race to design a racecar that could beat Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France, enlisting the help of the two protagonists to do so. James Mangold crafted an immersive experience with the sound and cinematography of this film, creating an authentic depiction of the events, which unfold through his devotion to the movie’s viewing experience. The film's tension keeps you holding on until the film’s final laps, and audiences are connected to the incredible stories of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. Overall, the film tells a pretty honest story, and Damon and Bale’s characters are the most real part of the film. In this case, the director and crew created an environment that allowed these two stars to shine and deliver peak performances, giving proper homage to the shoes they’re filling in the movie.
OUATIH was made by Quentin Tarantino, a world–renowned filmmaker with a very distinct style. His films consistently possess such as nonlinear storylines, long sequences of chaos, and torrents of blood and violence. Tarantino has essentially created a genre of his own. OUATIH is no exception to this, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt offer two Oscar–nominated performances that take audiences inside the changing world of Hollywood in the late 1960s, with all the classic Tarantino quirks and staples throughout. The historical component of this film doesn’t just shine through the committed recreation of New Hollywood, but also in how the film loosely follows the infamous Manson cult murder of beloved film star Sharon Tate. While this film is technically fiction, Tarantino blends the realms of fictional and truth–based storytelling with how he integrates his made–up cast into the real timeline he’s following. While more outrageous and history–twisting than a conventional biopic like Ford v Ferrari, Tarantino simultaneously paid tribute to the art of filmmaking and honored the lives of prominent Hollywood icons who died during that time period.
Even with the creative differences clearly laid out, these are both amazing films. Despite discrepancies in production and vision, the ultimate goal of filmmaking is to make the best film possible. This pair proves that real stories can be told even if the associated film is not “picture perfect” in its accuracy. In fact, "picture perfect" accuracy may not be the point. At the end of the day, films are meant to tell the story envisioned by the director. As the box–office and critics prove, quality matters most, regardless of the degree of accuracy achieved. A film might tell a true story perfectly down to the last detail, but it won’t have any cultural effect if the film itself is not good.
Over–emphasizing the plot’s accuracy limits creative potential and reduces focus on other aspects, like the sounds and visuals that make films like OUATIH and Ford v Ferrari great. While filmmakers that are attempting to tell an honest story should take the necessary measures to do so, we shouldn’t denounce quality films whose historical inaccuracies don't distract from the pieces of art that they are.