The 'based on a true story' fake-out: How 3 Oscar contenders misled audiences
What did Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and Argo embellish for the sake of a more dramatic story? Let's fact-check award season's biggest movies
Only in Hollywood could a movie that's "based on a true story" endure heaps of criticism for being too unrealistic and still manage to walk away with multiple awards. Indeed, in the grand tradition of previous Best Picture winners like The King's Speech and A Beautiful Mind, three of this year's biggest Oscar contenders — Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and Argo — have claimed, to varying degrees, to be based on real events. But historians, reporters, and even government officials insist that these movies are playing awfully fast and loose with the truth.
Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow's version of the Seal Team Six raid in Pakistan that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, opens by promising that it is "Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events." Not so fast, insist Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who wrote a letter to Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton to complain that Zero Dark Thirty is "grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of" bin Laden. Acting CIA Chief Michael Morell agrees.
Steve Coll argues in the New York Review of Books that Zero Dark Thirty "conflated the pseudoscience of the CIA's clinical, carefully reviewed 'enhanced techniques' such as waterboarding with the out-of-control abuse of prisoners by low-level military police in places such as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo." "More importantly," he continues, "Zero Dark Thirty ignores what the record shows about how regulated, lawyerly, and bureaucratized — how banal— torture apparently became at some of the CIA black sites."
For her part, Kathryn Bigelow has stridently defended her work, arguing that while the film does not endorse torture, torture "is a part of the story we could not ignore."
But the problem doesn't stop at torture. Writing in Pacific Standard magazine, former C.I.A. operative Nada Bakos argues that Jessica Chastain's character, Maya, a "go-it-alone gunslinger" type in the movie, is herself an unlikely figure: "More often than not, effective intelligence — including the effort to find Osama bin Laden — is the result of sustained, collective efforts that spark moments of intuition among a pool of experts and processes, not individual hunches that compel monumental effort."
"The reality of the profession is long hours of menial work that don't often fit into standard narratives."
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's take on the last months of the president as he heroically fights for the passage of the 13th Amendment, has also come under fire for stretching the truth. Historians have criticized the film for exaggerating just how big a part the president played in ending slavery, while underplaying the role that slaves themselves had in bringing about abolition. Bruce Levine, a historian from the University of Illinois, told Salon that he gives Lincoln a "mixed review" for accuracy, primarily because it overemphasizes Lincoln's influence. "Watching the film, you don't know that by the time of the events described, slavery is already badly undermined — slaves have been running away from their masters in border states and Confederate states even before fighting began," says Levine, adding that the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, "was almost a foregone conclusion."
Others criticized the film for failing to capture the full scope of the era. Columbia professor Eric Foner also noted to Salon: "You get no sense that the end of slavery is happening all over the place: In the South, for instance, with armies freeing slaves, and slaves rising up to take over plantations. It was a very chaotic moment and dramatic moment. This is the worst thing you can say about a Hollywood movie: It's kind of boring compared to the drama in the nation."
Argo, Ben Affleck's dramatization of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, has been attacked not for oversimplifying, but for adding fictional obstacles for its protagonists to make the movie more dramatic. The plot centers around six Americans trapped in the Canadian Embassy during the hostage crisis. CIA agent Tony Mendez is able to sneak them out of the country by convincing them to pose as a Canadian filmmaking crew. Though the story is true, Slate's David Haglund writes that not everything in the movie is accurate. Affleck's film downplays the role of the Canadians, "which was considerable"; Oscar-nominated actor Alan Arkin's Hollywood mogul character is a fictional composite; and Mendez, played by Affleck, had a host of personal and marital problems that were invented for the film.
But the most embellished part of the story is also the most gripping: the climactic sequence at the airport, in which the Americans are trying to get through security and onto the plane that will get them safely out of Iran. Virtually all of the hurdles in that sequence were made up, from the absence of the plane tickets when they first got to the airport (in fact, the Canadians had already bought them) to a scene in which the group is detained by airport security (according to Haglund, Mendez himself has said that the process went "smooth as silk"). And, as Haglund writes: "Most improbably, the teams of carpet weavers that the Iranian government put to work repairing shredded documents (something they actually did!) piece together the face of one of the six Americans right as the group reaches the airport, and those carpet weavers relay the image to their higher-ups in time for armed men to chase down the departing airplane in a jeep and police cars. None of that happened."
Despite the inaccuracies, each film is poised to clean-up during awards season. So far, Argo has won a Golden Globe for Best Picture, and Ben Affleck won for Best Director. Jessica Chastain and Daniel Day-Lewis both won Best Acting Globes. And each film is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, along with nominations in several other categories. Clearly, the truth is irrelevant.
Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. In the past she has written for the websites of MSNBC, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine's Daily Intel, and Talking Points Memo. Follow her on Twitter: @jillrayfield.