Someone recently suggested Monuments Men to me. You know, the George Clooney, art-rescue, buddy comedy. (I didn’t expect the next Ocean’s movie to be a period piece.) When I scoffed at the recommendation, my friend shot back with, “But it’s based on a true story,” as if that were some sort of valuable criterion upon which to judge the quality of a movie. I proceeded to denounce the validity of the argument and mock both my friend and Danny Ocean. Later that night, my thoughts on “Based on a True Story” would be tested when I watched Ryan Coogler’s fantastic 2013 film, Fruitvale Station.
Before we get into Fruitvale, I want to talk about what “Based on a True Story” means. When a movie claims to based on a true story, it sends up a few red flags for me. First, how strictly does the film adhere to the facts and actual events upon which it is based? Probably not that strictly. Films frequently take dramatic license, and they should. By doing this, they fill in the blanks and are able to transform a sequence of events into an interesting story. Take Argo for example. At the final leg of the escape, just yards away from the airplane doors, the escapees are stopped and scrutinized by airport security. Meanwhile, back at the U.S. Embassy, a young boy has just pasted together a shredded piece of paper which reveals the identity of one of our heroes attempting to escape. As this information is rushed to the airport, our heroes are finally forced to band together and commit to their farfetched plan. The tension builds and just when it seems it might be too late, our heroes convince the guards to let them go and are saved. This did not happen in real life. Rather, they got on the plane and they left. Ben Affleck built this tension into the scene to create a satisfying conclusion to his movie. So, whether that moment is strictly factual is (to at least a certain extent) irrelevant. What’s important is that it works.
It works for a couple of reasons. One, it’s an appropriate end to the preceding events. The team created a plan, rehearsed it, and now it was time to execute it. Having the characters escape without a hitch, while more likely, would be literally anti-climactic. That anti-climax could have been interesting, and there’s still some tension inherent to their attempt to get out of the country undetected; however, dramatization of the facts may fail to be effective in certain circumstances. If you do know how the actual events play out – they escape successfully – that bit of tension disappears, the story loses steam, and the artifice of the film becomes apparent. What was meant to be a better way of engaging the audience becomes a way of losing them, particularly because such an ending would not fit the movie we’d been watching. Argo is an action/adventure film and its ending suits the tone of that genre. A movie shouldn’t be faithful to the facts at the cost of being faithful to itself.
The other reason why the ending works is empathy. By ramping up the tension in the final scene, it’s easier for us to empathize with the characters. We are escaping with them and we better understand the risks and rewards. Empathy is integral to a story whether it is based on actual events or not. But in the case of a movie based on a true story, creating a strong sense of empathy helps to reinvigorate the events being portrayed, taking something we’ve maybe only experienced in the news or in history books and creating an engaging story to which we can relate.
So perhaps the next question is: When should a movie strictly adhere to the facts? Whenever the facts suit the needs of the filmmaker. What a movie says about a historical event is dependent on the interpretation of the facts by the writer, director, and other filmmakers (like producers, cinematographers, etc.) involved in the project. Let’s look at Oliver Stone’s JFK. In JFK, Stone tells the story of Louisiana District Attorney Jim Garrison, who attempted to prove that businessman Clay Shaw was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. Even before its release the film was scrutinized for being based on speculation, not facts. In an interview Roger Ebert did with Stone around the time of the film’s release, Ebert talks about the lack of importance the criticisms have. “I believe they are irrelevant to the film, which is not a documentary, not a historical study and not a courtroom presentation, but a movie that weaves a myth around the Kennedy assassination – a myth in which the slain leader was the victim of a monstrous conspiracy.” I think Ebert has the right of it. The critics aren’t wrong because Stone is right. The critics are wrong because they have completely missed the point of the film. Stone uses facts to talk about a myth, whether true or not, that has persisted for the past fifty years. And to that end he is successful.
Which leads me to my final point on the matter: The use of actual events as source material doesn’t make a film impervious to criticism. First of all, everything is up for criticism. (I’m pretty sure every comments section on the internet proves that.) Second, a movie’s factual accuracy is not an adequate judge of its quality. Rather we should judge the movie by two criteria. 1) What is the movie’s purpose? 2) How well does it achieve that purpose? The factual nature of a film’s source becomes less significant because the film is judged on the same terms as films with a fictional basis. Generally, we must evaluate movies separately from their source material. (This is the way we should treat movies based on books as well.) That doesn’t mean the source is not irrelevant. On the contrary, it has its own place in conversation about a movie. But a movie’s fidelity to its source material, fact or fiction, is not an indication of its success or failure as a movie.
Now having said all that, let’s go back to Fruitvale Station. The movie is about Oscar Grant. Grant was a young African-American man who was shot and killed by police while handcuffed, laying face down on a platform at Fruitvale Station, a stop on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in California. The movie takes place on the day leading up to Oscar’s shooting. Coogler presents Grant as a likeable young man trying to get his life together, making the tragedy that occurs at the climax of the film feel all the more unjust and unbearable. By the time the credits rolled, I was on the verge of tears.
It’s almost difficult to talk about Fruitvale Station without talking about its factual basis. We are living in a world that is post-Amadou Diallo, post-Danroy Henry, and most recently, post-Trayvon Martin. How could I talk about if Coogler succeeded when the facts were so much more horrifying? And that’s when I realized the answer: He wasn’t just successful; he was triumphant. What was Coogler’s purpose? To inform the world about the untimely death of Oscar Grant. To help us reflect on what these types of incidents mean. To get the audience to empathize with people surrounding this incident. And potentially, to affect change.
Fruitvale Station works because of its form as much as its content. In a another film about the same story, the tragedy of Oscar Grant’s death may not have carried as much weight. But Coogler successfully humanizes Oscar – the stellar acting of Michael B. Jordan as Oscar should also be noted here – and elevates this tragic tale from meaningful news story into worthwhile piece of art.
Someone once told me, “Fiction is truth liberated from fact.” Perhaps Coogler’s movie is inherently fiction because dramatic license is taken to revisit the last day of Oscar Grant, to round the character out, to turn him from a victim into a person. Movies based on true stories should focus on getting to the truth of their story by way of the facts. And audiences shouldn’t assume that the claim, “Based on a True Story” ensures a more important or superior movie. Rather, we should be mindful of the strength of the movie, of the craft, and consider the source only when it’s called for. Facts can bog us down. We assume that they offer answers. They do, but those answers are held deep within and require interpretation to bear out. That’s what stories and movies do for us. They make facts consumable. They turn raw materials (facts) into finished goods (truth). And after all, we go to the movies for truth, not facts.