A few days ago I watched Captain Phillips in the cinemas during the most horrendous weather to grace our islands for a while, but that’s not the important issue. Instead of simply doing a review, I wanted to examine quickly if it’s still a good idea to be making movies based on true stories or real-life events.
If I briefly glance at the IMDB (because I trust its authority on these matters), I can see that, out of the 10 ten highest rated movies, only one is based on real-life events: Schindler’s List. Now, I’m not saying that movies based on real-life are superior or inferior to more fictional films, but it always seems that people will create more of an issue around a film based on real-life and whether its portrayal, acting and tone really carry the truth.
Obviously, a basic complication with achieving a film of this kind is that you can only really film it from the perspective of one person, i.e. how each other character is displayed will rely upon the protagonist's feeling towards them. Therefore, almost everyone can take offence at the ‘incorrect depiction of events’. On top of this, the perspective that is chosen is usually one that will engage and resonate with, generally, a Western audience. For example, if Captain Phillips was done from the point of view of the hijackers, then I wonder whether it would have garnered as much praise as it has.
Another issue that clearly faces these types of films is that in essence it is a glorified documentary with some artistic licence. With real-life stories, you face the problem that the end of the film may not necessarily be the end of the story. Take the example of another recent film, The Fifth Estate, a biopic surrounding Julian Assange and the creation of Wikileaks. Even though Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Assange was critically praised, the actual story was found to be weak and, as Guardian reviewer Mark Kermode put it, “After a while it becomes apparent that the visual fizz is hiding an essential emptiness, a hole where the film's meaty core should be”. You argue, primarily, that this comes from the fact that the Wikileaks saga is an ongoing event so how can it be dramatised when a more revisionist view might be needed?
Overall, then films that are based on real life, or on one specific character, can be an excellent showcase of acting talent, take Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. Yet, these films are always subject to more criticism from viewers because the approach wasn’t how they wanted to see it. In the end, the decision is a difficult one as everyone has their own likes. The one thing to remember, though: a movie of this kind has to walk the extremely thin line between fact and drama, so the best thing to do is find a story that is one and the same.