Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
That often seems to be the motto when Hollywood screenwriters pen movies “based on a true story.”
“Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow's movie about the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, is the latest in a long line of award-season favorites to run into a buzz saw of controversy over factual accuracy on its way to Oscar night.
Studio campaigns leading up to the Academy Awards have become more intense. Exposing errors in biopics and movies based on history can hurt a film with Academy voters — and increase the odds for another.
But movies have always taken liberties with facts, usually so the story will play better with audiences or to streamline complicated matters to meet time limits.
That's certainly true of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Thousands of people across the globe were involved in the manhunt, sifting clues and planning the fatal raid on bin Laden's compound. The movie highlights the efforts of a single, obsessed CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain. Though based on an actual person, the character has also been called a composite of several people.
Beyond dramatic needs and award campaigning, “Zero Dark Thirty” faces an extra burden.
Because U.S. special forces killed bin Laden just 20 months ago, political hot buttons — such as the role enhanced interrogation played in extracting usable information from al Qaeda operatives — have not yet cooled.
Screenwriter Mark Boal, who got firsthand accounts of aspects of the bin Laden hunt, is a former reporter. He has said he researched the film as a journalist.
In late December Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked “Zero Dark” distributor Sony to correct the record on what role waterboarding played in obtaining information that led to bin Laden. They say the movie gives a false impression that enhanced interrogation, since banned by President Obama, was effective, even key to the hunt.
CIA acting director Michael Morell has admitted to meeting several times with Boal and Bigelow, but he said the movie they created is “a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts.”
Boal and Bigelow are pushing back, saying the movie portrays what they were told by people who knew — including some at the CIA. The Senate Intelligence Committee now is investigating what information Morell and the CIA provided moviemakers.
Recent history is always more open to question because memories and emotions are fresh.
Contrast the heat “Zero Dark Thirty” is getting with the relatively quiet reception for Ben Affleck's movie “Argo,” about sneaking U.S. Embassy workers out of Tehran amid the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis.
Affleck has said up front that the story was reshaped to meet the dramatic needs of a suspense movie. All those hitches that arise at the airport as the Americans are about to fly away? Never happened. The reconstructed photo from shredded documents that reaches the Revolutionary Guard seconds too late? Exciting, but untrue.
Alan Arkin's Hollywood producer character in “Argo” was also an invention. And the role of Canada's government in the operation is downplayed.
Similarly, Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln” has congressmen cheering and singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the House floor as bells peal throughout Washington, D.C., when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery, passes.
The actual reaction to that vote was likely quieter. And Mary Todd Lincoln was not in the House gallery when the vote was taken.
“Hitchcock” is earning Helen Mirren Oscar buzz for best actress. The movie about iconic suspense director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma (Mirren), takes liberties, too.
When Hitchcock gets the flu during filming, the movie has Alma come to the set of “Psycho” to keep production rolling. In reality, assistant director Hilton Green was the sub, consulting with Hitchcock over the phone. And reshoots were later needed.
The movie also imagines aspects of Alfred Hitchcock's marriage and mental health that are pure speculation — or creative invention.
“The Impossible,” a movie about a family caught in a tsunami in Thailand in 2004, is also based on a true story. The family in the movie is British, including the mom played by Golden Globe nominee Naomi Watts. The real family was Spanish. Details of the ordeal no doubt have been altered.
Sometimes a flap about accuracy hurts. “Hurricane,” the 1999 movie about boxer Rubin Carter, was touted as an Oscar frontrunner until aspects of Carter's life that were not in the movie came to light. Denzel Washington got a best-actor nod, but the movie took home no gold.
Other times a movie will rise above the criticism. “A Beautiful Mind,” the biopic about Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash's battle with mental illness, won best picture in 2002 despite controversy over Nash's sexual history and alleged anti-Semitism. Those issues aren't in the movie.
How the flap over “Zero Dark Thirty” shakes out remains to be seen, despite the Oscar nominations it was expected to receive Thursday morning. While controversy may hurt award chances, it sometimes also pads box office receipts, as curious people check out the movie for themselves.
As for the core issue swirling around “Zero Dark Thirty,” CIA chief Morell has said this: “Whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from these detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”
Contact the writer: