Oscars: Why Fake News Concerns Shouldn't Bother Hollywood

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The original and adapted screenplay Oscar races feature a bumper crop of stories inspired by real events, but the best are sprinkled with myth-making and truth-faking, writes THR film critic Stephen Dalton.

In this brave new world of post-truth politics and fake news stories, Hollywood is enjoying a boom in reality-based movies. From biopics to true-crime thrillers to state-of-the-nation docudramas, stories based on real people and events look certain to dominate the Oscar nominations in January.

But reality can be overrated, and truth inconvenient. The worst true-story movies often are those most faithful to the surface facts: prosaic procedurals, boiled-down biographies and schematic attempts to impose narrative logic on complex lives. Such films show the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The best of them, like great fairy tales, mix facts with a shot of artistic license. "Art is the lie that tells the truth," Pablo Picasso once said. Or was that quote invented by a screenwriter?

In recent years, the original and adapted screenplay races have been flooded with based-on-reality movies, including The Social Network, The King's Speech, 12 Years a Slave, Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, Straight Outta Compton, The Big Short and Spotlight — all Oscar winners or nominees. This year, films in contention that are based on true stories include Jackie, Snowden, Sully, The Founder, Hidden Figures, Neruda, The Birth of a Nation, Lion, Florence Foster Jenkins, Hacksaw Ridge, Loving, Rules Don't Apply, Patriots Day, Bleed for This, Queen of Katwe, Christine, Denial and Gold. The truth is out there, if often heavily fictionalized.

Biopics that find a fresh angle on well-documented icons are a popular starting point for movie myth-making, especially when they seem to chime with contemporary events. Leading the field is Pablo Larrain's Jackie, scripted by Noah Oppenheim, about a grieving Jackie Kennedy's attempts to shape her husband's legacy in the devastating aftermath of his assassination. A sumptuous elegy for Camelot and for liberal America itself, Oppenheim's archly self-aware script eloquently muses on how history blurs fact and fantasy. "People like to believe in fairy tales," Natalie Portman's heavily mannered Jackie coos with a wink to the audience.

A more gung-ho, individualistic brand of American anti-hero drives John Lee Hancock's The Founder, starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the entrepreneur who made McDonald's into an empire. Robert Siegel's script tweaks a few factual details, but he is more interested in debunking Kroc's propaganda than endorsing it. Besides, unlike most biopics, this is one colorful life story that needs little embroidering.

With Keaton on an Oscar streak in the wake of best picture winners Birdman and Spotlight, The Founder could prove a solid awards rival to Jackie. A showdown between a bombastic billionaire businessman and a woman facing imminent eviction from the White House? If only there were some real-life parallel ...

Peddling a more playfully fake brand of history, Warren Beatty's frothy Rules Don't Apply is a rom-com rooted in the Hollywood heyday of womanizing tycoon Howard Hughes. Beatty's script bears scant relation to the truth, but it dances knowingly around existing folklore in a similar way to previous historical dramedies like The Queen, which earned a 2007 Oscar nomination for screenwriter Peter Morgan, and the willfully anachronistic Shakespeare in Love, a 1999 screenplay winner for Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

Of course, Hughes, Kroc and Jackie O have been safely dead for decades and are thus fair game for speculative screenwriters. Movies based on more recent events face clearer legal and ethical constraints on artistic license.

Clint Eastwood's Sully is one example. Todd Komarnicki's screenplay may exaggerate the tensions between "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his bosses for dramatic effect, but it generally relies on factual re-enactment. Likewise, Oliver Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald's script for Snowden takes a few liberties in portraying the eponymous NSA whistleblower (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) but mostly lays out the story in dutiful docudrama terms.

Stone's sober journalistic approach to Snowden stands in striking contrast to his magnum opus JFK, one of the most enjoyably wacko "true story" yarns, which earned a 1992 screenplay nomination despite being a swamp of stoner-level false conspiracy theories. It was the original "post-truth" blockbuster — preposterous but compelling. I miss that Oliver Stone sometimes.

A similar flatness hobbled other recent nominees, including Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015), both meticulously researched but somewhat turgid affairs. Lincoln lost the adapted screenplay Oscar to Ben Affleck's hostage thriller Argo, a semi-true story full of brazen exaggerations and fabrications, including a climactic airport chase — Chris Terrio's script even prompted threats of legal action from Iran's government over its inaccuracies.

None of which troubled the Academy, which also awarded Argo editing and best picture Oscars. A spoonful of heroism, however bogus, always helps the Oscar medicine go down. A similar calculation could work for writer-director Peter Berg's Patriots Day — a kinetic thriller about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — which wraps a real tragedy inside a fictional backstory featuring composite characters.

Mel Gibson's directing comeback, the World War II biopic Hacksaw Ridge, strikes a more cautious balance between fact and fiction. The script, by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, largely is accurate but builds extra obstacles into its young hero's story in a bid to boost dramatic tension. Mission accomplished, because this pacifist bloodbath is a triumphant act of atonement for the troubled Gibson. It almost excuses him for 1995's Braveheart, which ranks somewhere below the Smurfs movies for blue-faced historical inaccuracy yet won an original screenplay nomination and Oscars for director and best picture.

Heroes are easy film fodder. But flawed genius characters — artists, scientists, athletes — are notoriously difficult to depict, as commercial pressure to sanitize and canonize often prevails. Thankfully, Jackie director Larrain's second potential contender, Chile's foreign-language submission Neruda, skips biopic rules by painting the literary outlaw (Luis Gnecco) as a boozy playboy on the run from a fictionalized detective (Gael Garcia Bernal). Screenwriter Guillermo Calderon's application of poetic license to a poet's life feels entirely apt, freeing his subject from starchy middlebrow reverence.

A more conventional take on the outsider-genius genre was Graham Moore's script for 2014's The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum's biopic of computer wizard and LGBT martyr Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). It won the adapted screenplay Oscar ahead of Anthony McCarten's portrait of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) in James Marsh's The Theory of Everything. While both films blurred the facts, the Turing pic fabricated more and was rewarded with bigger prizes.

The mother of all tortured-genius movies is Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001), starring Russell Crowe as Nobel prize-winning math wizard John Nash. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman carefully omitted any mention of Nash's bisexuality, divorce, illegitimate child and alleged anti-Semitic outbursts. The film won four Academy Awards, including adapted screenplay, picture and director. The real story might have made a more fascinating film, but probably a less lucrative — and certainly a less Oscar-friendly — one.

Creative fabrication onscreen can be a bland whitewash or a searing searchlight. Truth is almost always stranger than fiction — but way less amenable to three-act dramas with uplifting redemption messages. If the Academy chooses wisely this season, the next screenplay Oscar winners will tell us artful lies about reality while revealing truths about ourselves.

Disclaimer: This column is based on a true story. But only loosely.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.