November 14, 2013 11:00am PT by Gregg Kilday
'12 Years a Slave,' 'Captain Phillips' and the Race to Fact-Check Oscar Hopefuls
This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
At the conclusion of John Ford's 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaperman issues the famous line, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It's a motto Hollywood had been living by for years as filmmakers blithely rewrote history or casually altered current events whenever it suited them.
But today we live in the age of Google, when a quick fact-check is just an Internet search away. And so movies -- especially movies running the gantlet of the Oscar-vetting process -- can't get away as easily with playing fast and loose with the truth.
In fact -- maybe that's an intended pun? -- this awards season already is turning into the year of the fact-checker. Lee Daniels' The Butler might be inspired by a true story, but a few skeptics were quick to carp that the actual White House butler, Eugene Allen, on whose life the movie is based, had not two sons but one. Before The Fifth Estate was released, Julian Assange -- not eager to see his life on film -- charged "it would distort events." And even nonfiction films are being forced to submit to virtual lie-detector tests as astronauts weigh in about the trajectories in Gravity and lesbians are queried about the sexual mechanics in Blue Is the Warmest Color.
The question, though, is: When it comes to a movie's awards potential -- not to mention its commercial prospects -- does factual accuracy matter?
Certainly, there have been movies that got so tangled up in battles with the truth squad that Oscar voters, leery of controversy, might have shied away. In 1991, filmmaker/provocateur Oliver Stone deliberately set out to challenge the lone gunman version of the Kennedy assassination, positing his own conspiracy theory that drew plenty of fire. Although his JFK was nominated for eight Academy Awards, it took home just two, losing best picture to The Silence of the Lambs. But at the box office, it was another story, with the movie grossing $205.4 million worldwide ($353.1 million today). More recently, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty got bogged down in a debate over its depiction of torture -- it basically became a punching bag in a larger political battle about U.S. policy. It, too, fell short of claiming a best picture Oscar, though whether because of the controversy that engulfed it or simply because voters preferred the feel-good American triumphalism of the winner Argo remains an open question.
In most cases, though, when fact attacks have been aimed at a film, there's little evidence they have had any real effect. In 2002, as Academy members were about to cast their votes, stories surfaced that John Nash, the hero of A Beautiful Mind, might have been a bit of an anti-Semite. Its supporters panicked. They needn't have. The movie was crowned best picture.
At the moment, Captain Phillips has encountered something similar. No sooner had Paul Greengrass' thriller opened to mostly ecstatic reviews than the media latched onto the story of a 3-year-old lawsuit just going to trial filed by nine members of the captured cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, that contradicted Richard Phillips' version of events. Greengrass immediately shot back, "I stand by the picture I give in the film, absolutely." And so far, the back-and-forth hasn't appeared to hurt the film, which has grossed nearly $146 million worldwide. Safe to say that audiences want to believe in Tom Hanks' portrayal of Phillips -- especially given his performance's stunning final moments, which can't easily be dismissed.
Still, in the highly politicized world of Oscar campaigning -- where the awards consultants and bloggers are symbiotically entwined -- every discussion, no matter how informative or straightforward, about a movie's factual basis comes to be viewed as a dirty trick engineered by a rival camp.
In September, for example, The New York Times' Michael Cieply wrote a story looking at the original 1853 book on which 12 Years a Slave is based, a collaboration between Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film, and the white author to whom he told his story. One blogger, suspecting foul play, immediately tweeted, "I love and respect Cieply but I nevertheless find myself wondering who put this bug in his ear." Nobody as it turns out. As Cieply tells it, he simply was curious to learn more about the original book, drove to the downtown L.A. library and did some research. "Movies have to be movies first and fact later," says Cieply. "But since millions take movies as literal truth, there's no harm at all in journalists discerning between what happened onscreen and what actually happened. And the basic point that I made is that while nobody challenges the factual underpinnings of the story, there is considerable scholarly debate about the voice that tells that story."
But in Oscar season, why let those facts get in the way of a potential controversy?