We all know Hollywood has a habit of sensationalizing things, but it’s never more obvious than in movies that are supposed to depict real-life events. Many films that are touted as being inspired by or based on a true story have earned criticism for tweaking personal narratives or being historically inaccurate. These “true story” movies — including everything from horror flicks to dramatic biopics — are some of the worst offenders.
The Coen brothers’ 1996 classic starts with opening text claiming, “This is a true story,” and goes on to explain that the film’s events took place in Minnesota in 1987. It turns out that no crimes even vaguely resembling the movie were ever found to have occurred at the time. To add fuel to the fire, the closing credits bear the standard “all persons fictitious” disclaimer.
So what’s the truth? Joel Coen later clarified that the movie is based on an actual event, but that the surrounding story is fictional. He said, “If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.”
2. Pursuit of Happyness
The 2006 biographical drama stars Will Smith as Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman who takes custody of his 5-year-old son Christopher (Jaden Smith) just as he’s poised to begin a life-changing professional endeavor. The feel-good movie positions Gardner as a down-on-his-luck nice guy, who will stop at nothing to give his son the life he deserves. However, the real-life Gardner reportedly wasn’t quite as squeaky clean as Sony’s version.
First of all, he didn’t have his son with his wife, but with a mistress. Gardner also wasn’t as involved with the child as he is in the movie, reportedly remaining largely absent from Christopher’s life for several months while attempting to get that prestigious job. His criminal history was also sketchier than what was showcased in the film. Instead of facing just a few parking ticket violations, the real Gardner was actually also arrested for domestic violence. Despite the discrepancies, Pursuit of Happyness earned widespread acclaim and an Academy Award nod for Best Actor for Smith.
3. The Strangers
The Strangers is only one in a long list of not-so-true horror movies that claim to be based on real events, but it’s certainly one of the worst offenders. The 2008 flick, which follows a group of masked criminals who commit a violent home invasion, opens with a disclaimer reading, “What you are about to see was inspired by true events.” As it turns out, the actual events that inspired the film weren’t anywhere near as violent or scary.
As writer and director Bryan Bertino described of the supposed “true” events, “As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody who didn’t live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors on the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses.” Uh…and that warrants a “true story” disclaimer? Talk about a huge stretch.
4. A Beautiful Mind
The 2001 biographical drama, starring Russell Crowe, is based on the life of John Nash a Nobel Laureate in Economics…well, supposedly. The movie took several liberties with the story, fictionalizing many aspects of Nash’s professional and personal life.
Case in point? In the movie, Nash joined the Wheeler Laboratory at MIT, which actually doesn’t exist. Though the real Nash did become an instructor at MIT, he never worked for the Department of Defense, as suggested in the movie. But that’s just the beginning. Though the film shows him as a dad, it doesn’t reveal that Nash’s first child was born out of wedlock, conceived with a woman whom he promptly abandoned. The drama also glosses over the fact that Nash was unceremoniously fired from RAND Corporation after facing charges for indecent exposure.
Despite the various misrepresentations in the movie, A Beautiful Mind won high praise and numerous accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2002.
5. The Blind Side
The 2009 biographical drama follows the true story of Michael Oher, who was adopted by a wealthy family and overcame great odds to become an NFL star. But though the film earned critical acclaim and nabbed Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress, not everyone was thrilled with the film’s take on the real-life story.
Oher himself pointed out several significant inaccuracies in the story, even writing a book to set the record straight. In the novel, Oher clarified that adoptive mom Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t ever have to teach him how to play football. “I’ve been studying — really studying — the game since I was a kid,” Oher said in his book, “I felt like it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it. Quinton Aaron did a great job acting the part, but I could not figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football.”
Ben Affleck’s 2012 political thriller chronicles the “Canadian Caper” in which CIA operative Tony Mendez led the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, Iran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis. The film earned a slew of accolades, even taking home the Oscar for Best Picture in 2013. But the response wasn’t completely positive. Argo also earned criticism for several inaccuracies, the biggest of which included vastly minimizing the role that the Canadian embassy played in the rescue.
In a CNN interview, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter addressed the controversy, saying, “that 90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA. And with that exception, the movie is very good.” He went on to add that, “Ben Affleck’s character in the film was … only in Tehran a day and a half. And the main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.“
Affleck also spoke out on the criticism saying, “Because we say it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we’re allowed to take some dramatic license. There’s a spirit of truth … the kinds of things that are really important to be true are — for example, the relationship between the U.S. and Canada.”
7. American Sniper
Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper earned acclaim and big box office revenue in its 2014 debut, but it also stirred up plenty of controversy. Critics pointed out several important differences between the real life of Chris Kyle and that portrayed by Bradley Cooper in the movie.
One of the biggest distortions is the film’s depiction of Mustafa, the Syrian enemy sniper that Kyle battles. Whereas the movie portrays him as a longtime antagonist, Mustafa actually only shows up in one brief paragraph in Kyle’s memoir. Then there’s Kyle’s long range shot of over 2,000 yards, which Hollywood portrayed as the shot that killed Mustafa. In actuality, that particular shot took out someone carrying a rocket launcher.
Another point of contention is movie’s portrayal of Kyle’s friend, Ryan Job. In the film, Job dies shortly after he is shot by Mustafa, but in reality, Job survived for several years after the incident, eventually dying from surgical complications in relation to a facial operation.
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