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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Oscars: Even in fictional best picture nominees, there's some truth

Sandra Bullock stars in Gravity.
Sandra Bullock stars in Gravity.
Published Mar. 1, 2014

What about those three best picture Oscar nominees that aren't based on true stories? Turns out that Gravity, Her and Nebraska blend fiction with surprising levels of fact.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson got famously picky with Gravity's mistakes about weightlessness, and the ease with which Sandra Bullock could travel from one space station to the next. But listen to what someone who has actually been there had to say:

"It's amazing how many things Gravity gets right," former NASA astronaut and International Space Station resident Garrett Reisman wrote for Forbes.com. Reisman was most impressed by its imitation of zero gravity conditions and spacewalk movements. The danger of space debris is "very real," he wrote, while the movie's space station interiors are "pretty realistic."

Reisman seconded several of Tyson's gripes, chalking them up to artistic license, and generally keeping his opinion light-hearted: "Gravity is the most realistic space movie ever. I mean, that Clooney guy looks just like me!"

What are the possibilities of computer operating systems someday equalling the "personal" nature of the sci-fi romance Her? The developer of the information driver for the iPhone's Siri application believes that technological leap is possible.

Stephen Wolfram told Speakeasy magazine: "The mechanics of getting the (artificial intelligence) to work — I don't think that's the most challenging part. The challenging part is, in a sense: Define the meaningful product." In other words, narrow our expectations to specific goals for the AI to accomplish. Don't expect Scarlett Johansson to fall in love with you, but she might sort your email.

Finally, there's Nebraska's tale of a septugenarian (Bruce Dern) mistakenly believing he won a million dollar sweepstakes and embarking on a road trip to pick up money that isn't there. Nobody could really be that gullible, right?

Wrong. In fact, Tampa figured into a similar true story.

California resident Richard Lusk, 88, flew here twice in 1987-88, convinced he had won American Family sweepstakes prizes. Mailings that Lusk received carried a Tampa return address, since entries were processed at the time by a local agency. The St. Petersburg Times reported Lusk spent thousands of dollars on his first quest, which was mostly reimbursed by American Family, who promised their mailings to Lusk would cease.

They didn't. A few months later, Lusk received an American Family notice that he shared a winning number with another person, and the first to return their entry to Tampa would win $11 million. Lusk left his bedridden wife with a nurse and hopped on a flight to Tampa without telling his family. American Family later reimbursed Lusk for that trip.

Similar scenarios were reported in 32 states, spurring a three-year federal investigation into American Family sweepstakes and changes to their marketing practices. Unlike Bruce Dern, Lusk apparently never received a shiny new truck or air compressor.

Steve Persall, Times movie critic

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