I’ve long noticed a general suspicion shown towards movies purporting to tell a “true story.” Even though it’s no surprise that they take license with real events, after they’re released there are always dozens of webpages treating even the smallest of these instances negatively.
What are we so afraid of?
On the one hand, surrounded by the certainty of data as we are, it seems to be immensely discomforting to realize that all of life today—and I’d even say the deepest parts of life— cannot actually be known as accurately as the mileage on our cars, the storage capacity of our phones, and all the statistics we allow Google or political campaigns or just retailers to collect about us. Yet to take only two examples: there is no evidence that Shakespeare’s audience complained about how “accurately” he rendered figures from English history whether long or recent past, from King Lear to Henry VIII. And it’s doubtful that the poet we call Homer would have become as important to the Greeks as he did if anyone had been focused on historical accuracy. Greeks of the eighth century BC listening to a performance are unlikely to have known anything tangible about the destruction of Troy four centuries before; and yet the story Homer spun resonated, not for its historical but its emotional accuracy. To take a recent example: it makes little difference if, as portrayed in Peter Shaffer’s play (and the later film) Amadeus, the composer Antonio Salieri actually murdered Mozart; the story is a true enough expression of human emotions and jealousy to succeed and last.
Indeed those movies—and, just as prominently in the past, plays, opera, and poetry— telling a true story have always existed more as charts of our emotional history than our actual history. I recently saw Clint Eastwood’s Sully, where the dramatic tension is between the Heroic Pilot acting like an individualistic American to save hundreds of lives, and the bureaucratic National Transportation Safety Board who call his judgment into account after the fact. This tension, however, never actually existed, and the NTSB has complained about being inaccurately portrayed in the movie. On the one hand, the choice to tell the story this way does reflect the emotional reality of our times, and our general distrust of the government on all sides; and yet this choice was also so transparently political as to erase its emotional truth. As with so many movies, what could have been a simple human story became merely an ideological one. It’s true that in the future this political subtext will probably go unnoticed; but unlike, say, the paintings of Jacques Louis-David, movies like Sully don’t really have the artistic legs to rise above the propaganda they are seeped in.
So what are we lacking? Are we so overburdened by historical and scientific and social data in a way Shakespeare or Homer’s audiences weren’t, that we can no longer enjoy a representation of those things whose point has never been total “accuracy”? Are movies created to succeed among such a large percentage of the population (a requirement Shakespeare and Homer also weren’t constrained by) that it’s no surprise they end up watered down? Is our culture so bereft of anyone even half as good as Homer and Shakespeare, so that the stories they give us can’t help but only half-fill the vacuum, and we fill the rest with our discontent and criticism, or with the filmmakers’ obvious bias?
Does any of this make sense?