Re-creating truth in movies has consequences.
Like a $25 million lawsuit, filed by someone claiming to be damaged by his depiction in The Wolf of Wall Street. Or the real-life Captain Phillips knowing a movie makes him appear more heroic than he was.
Sometimes the result of repackaging truth — accurately or not — is Hollywood's most coveted prize, an Academy Award for best picture.
Odds are better than ever this year that a cinematic version of a true story will win the Oscar. Nine finalists, and six are ripped from headlines, history or memoirs. Twice as many as in recent years when Argo and The King's Speech, each based on fact, took the top prize.
Whether tonight's winner is based on, inspired by or plays loose with the truth like American Hustle, movies remain unreliable eyewitnesses, portraying the way things really happened only for viewers wanting to believe.
And, yes, I've heard someone ask if Gravity is a true story.
"People see (a movie) and automatically believe that's true," said Kevin Lang, founder of HistoryVsHollywood.com, dedicated to sorting out fact and fiction in popular movies. "But I'm finding that a lot of people really are curious, and question things."
"If more people are picking these films apart, it's going to put more pressure on filmmakers to get it right, or not veer too far away from the story. Especially the ones vying for Academy Awards, because that can come back to bite them."
Lang pointed to Denzel Washington's failed Oscar bid for The Hurricane, when the movie's depiction of Ruben "Hurricane" Carter's murder conviction was slammed for inaccuracies. Last year, Zero Dark Thirty's chances of winning the best picture Oscar were dashed when its depictions of interrogation torture were contradicted by CIA and military personnel. There is no such thing as bad publicity in Hollywood, unless it's during the home stretch of Oscar season.
This year's fact-based nominees made it through the balloting process without any "pants on fire" accusations that could sway voters. Lang's website does point out interesting deviations from sources including Solomon Northup's and Jordan Belfort's books, and the media unraveling of Abscam, Somali pirates, Ron Woodroof's AIDS crusade and Philomena Lee's search for her stolen son.
Lang rates 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street as tonight's most credible best picture nominees, the latter surprisingly so.
"After seeing all the outrageous things this guy does, all the sex and drugs, you think there's no way that could all happen in a life," he said. "Then I researched and found out most of that stuff really happened."
Not the dwarf tossing, though. Or the chimpanzee. But the sunken yacht, swallowed goldfish and helicopter mishap are apparently true. One notable detour from fact doesn't involve debauchery but how Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets his future partner, the pseudonymed Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). In the movie it's a chance encounter in a diner, with Belfort flashing a Jaguar and fat pay stub. In reality, Belfort reportedly met the man's wife first, offering his seat on a city bus, his ride before his rise.
Lang said 12 Years a Slave is tough to verify since Northup's memoir is all researchers have to work with. "When you look at the book compared to the film, a lot is very accurate," he said.
The discrepancies include Northup fathering two children when in reality there were three, and portraying Benedict Cumberbatch's slave owner as much less forgiving than Northup described. A scene involving a slave ship sailor murdering a prisoner is apparently screenwriter John Ridley invoking creative license. One searing scene — when Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) begs Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to kill her — may be mistaken due to a misread sentence in Northup's book that seems to imply Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) urged Solomon to kill Patsey, a rival for her husband's attention.
Like 12 Years a Slave, Philomena tells a story for which researchable records barely exist. The movie hews closely to journalist Martin Sixsmith's account of assisting Philomena, with Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in the roles. Detractors so far have been defensive since an Irish Catholic abbey selling illegitimate children in the 1950s is the villain of the piece.
Dallas Buyers Club also leans heavily upon one writer's take on a subject. Screenwriter Craig Borten collected 20 hours of interviews with Woodroof, who in the 1980s smuggled pharmaceuticals unapproved at the time for use by HIV and AIDS patients. Borten told Slate.com that he and co-writer Melisa Wallack needed to streamline Woodroof's story, including composites of characters that became people played by Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner. The movie also makes Woodroof into a rodeo rider, when in fact he was just a fan.
The most contentious Oscar finalist has been Captain Phillips, with lawsuits filed by crew members of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, claiming Capt. Richard Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, disregarded warnings to sail at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia. The ship cruised within 300 miles of the coast, increasing the danger of pirates. Phillips publicly denied the movie's depiction of offering himself to be shot or taken hostage, instead of his crew.
Appropriately enough, the nominee most far from the truth is the con artist yarn American Hustle, changing names to protect the guilty. The outline of the FBI's Abscam sting of the late 1970s and early '80s, coaxing politicians into bribery scandals, is exaggerated and played for laughs.
"History replays itself as farce," Lang said. And Hollywood again makes truth just another prop.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.