With the release of Patriots Day, a film about the real-life Boston marathon bombing of 2013, I would like to say something about ‘Based on true events’ films. This is the second Mark Wahlberg film in 6 months based on a real life tragedy that occurred in very recent memory. I can’t help but feeling it is very manipulative and in poor taste to monetise tragedies within living memory. It is a very safe and relatively lazy way of coming up with money-making films that also happens to exploit the ill-fated and recently bereaved. I’m not saying that it can’t be done tastefully and I haven’t yet seen Patriots Day but the very idea of selling tickets on the emotional connection to a tragic event is in my view objectionable.
There is a long history of film inspired by true events. Note the words ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘depicting’ or ‘showing’. There is a great difference between factual drama, documentary and films based on true events. Whilst all films change events slightly for the sake of entertainment, the degree of truth and the malevolence the film gets away with is variable. Factual dramas always change something because concepts of pace, tension, believability, simplicity and dialogue don’t run in real life the same way they fit into a screenplay. For example, when you receive bad news in real life, it usually comes in slow and painful stages with most of the conflict played out internally but in films the audience need a noticeable meaningful reaction that sums up the protagonists emotional response. Even documentaries have to recreate events and stage scenes to depict the overall truth about the subject matter because a camera cannot always capture the full reality of a situation occurring in real time.
However, the BOTE film values entertainment over truth and will openly change things to make the story ‘better’. In Patriots Day, I’ve already discovered that Wahlberg’s character is a composite of several people, which makes the film much easier to package and makes it easier to write a coherent screenplay, but it also means that whilst Patriots Day may be a decent tribute to real people it is not an accurate depiction of that day or respectful to those who lived it. BOTE films don’t always have to be respectful to true events but when the event is so recent and sensitive subject matter there is a duty to cover the event accurately.
In 2011, a less sensitive and more historical story was rewritten in Anonymous, the film starring Rhys Ifans, which suggested the plays of Shakespeare were in fact written by Edward de Vere, a genius Earl and lover of the virgin queen. Now the film was attacked for its treatment of facts and unconvincing attempt to rewrite history, however I found it enjoyable and it inspired me to look into the real history, so I would not call it exploitative of real events or insensitive to truth and history. Quite clearly the film is only BASED on true events and whilst those involved may be trying to suggest something, it’s not cynical or lying to make a profit. When BOTE films pick on moments from history they risk spreading factual inaccuracies as de facto knowledge since people remember historical characters from film before history class. But as there will always be some mistakes and some changes for convenience, it is not the responsibility of the makers of BOTE films to make sure their films are educational.
So when you go and watch Patriots Day or Deepwater Horizon or another ‘true story’, you should be inspired to check the real story behind the film, but of course these are not historical figures. They are real people whose lives probably aren’t as interesting because they are normal people who faced extraordinary circumstances. And these films are not set up to encourage the truth, quite the opposite. BOTE films used to tell little known stories like Erin Brockovich and Catch me if you can. There are still surprising untold stories out there as proven by the recent release Hidden Figures, which tells a slightly fictionalised version of an important story we should have heard long ago. These films may bend the truth but they encourage you to find out more. Unfortunately, the newest trend for BOTE films seems to be for stories that we are all very familiar with, such as Sully and Patriots Day and no matter how respectful they are and no matter how good they are, this trend worries me deeply.