Films that are “based on a true story” obviously take some liberties with the truth. They have to be interesting! But have you ever wondered which scenes are real and which made up? Now you can check some recent blockbusters with a scene-by-scene breakdown.
The site Information is Beautiful is providing an invaluable service to the film-going public: the ability to be an insufferable know-it-all during films based on true historical events. The interactive feature has carved up ten recent movies into their individual scenes and grades each scene as “true,” “true-ish,” “false-ish,” and “false.” You can set the grading system to different levels of skepticism, from “Flexible,” to “Only the Absolute Truth.”
The timelines from the movies give you a quick look at how truthful each movie is being. The pinker the line, the more fibs the filmmakers have told. The Big Short is the most accurate of the bunch, by the way. An impressive 88.7% of its scenes are characterized as truthful. Trailing behind everyone else is the Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game, in which only 35.7% of the scenes are actually based on the truth.
Click on an individual scene, and you’ll get a description of the scene as well as a run down of what the checkers found right or wrong about it.
It’s interesting to see the various ways filmmakers changed history for the purposes of their art. Some changes are understandable. To tell a coherent story, films sometimes have to combine two characters to make one or compress historical events, in order to make the narrative smooth.
Other changes are made for the sake of characterization—which seems an odd choice for a biopic about a historical character. The Imitation Game earns a high “False” rating in part because it characterizes Alan Turing as a humorless, unsociable, and friendless outsider who possibly had obsessive compulsive disorder and was on the autism spectrum. Most of the people who worked with him agreed that, while he could be prickly, he was respected, sociable, and well-liked among his colleagues. They also say he showed no evidence of having autism or OCD.
Then there’s the truly unforgivable stuff, like pretending Turing knew about a Soviet spy.
When looking through the scenes on some of the movies, it becomes clear how overtly some films impose their own narrative. It’s common knowledge that The Social Network included a female character, an ex-girlfriend to Mark Zuckerberg who never existed. Looking at how an encounter with this made-up human being changes “Zuckerberg’s” motivation puts the movie in a new light. Ultimately, Zuckerberg’s imagined motivation to start Facebook to get girls makes you realize how the whole movie is based on a manufactured story in a painfully misleading way.
All in all, this is a good way to get a sense of how and why “true” movies diverge from reality. And it will furnish you with a lot of trivia with which you can make your friends miserable on Oscar night.