Your favorite movie “based on a true story” might not be so true.
This is about the time of year when we get bombarded with newly released “Oscar bait” before the December 31st cutoff and, thanks to year-end critic lists, reminded of all the prestige films we missed earlier. The perennial contenders for Academy Awards are often biopics or other somewhat historical films that, to some degree or another, recount actual events. Sometimes these films use backdrops as a pretense and are pretty up-front that they’re a blend of fiction and history.
For instance, yes, the Titanic was a ship that sank, and some of the characters in the titular film were real people, but the love story at the center of it was no more real than it was in, say, 50 First Dates. James Cameron and the studio were fairly candid about this. Thought a lot of people seem to have gleaned 100% of their Titanic knowledge from the film.
But when the Oscar race heats up, stakeholders might want to play every card they have, and that includes trumping fare as “historically accurate,” even if the films they lobby for aren’t so accurate.
Fortunately, for those of us who care about being misled but not enough to actually do some cursory historical research ourselves, there’s a group that’s been quietly grading the accuracy of “historical” films.
It’s a data collection site named Information Is Beautiful, founded by London journalist David McCandless, and so far the site has assigned a spectrum of grades to the following films:
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
The Imitation Game
Dallas Buyers Club
The Wolf of Wall Street
12 Years a Slave
The Social Network
The Kings Speech
As you would imagine, the general grades are all over the place, but you can tailor the criteria to meet your needs. You can raise or lower your historical standards and the grades will rise and fall based on your own idea of what’s important.
Movies are broken down by scene and given a color-coded spectrum that shows the veracity as it coincides with the runtime and point in the film. This surely sounds more complicated than it actually is, so just take a look:
Information Is Beautiful
Surprises abound when you review the films and grades. You’d think Clint Eastwood would have been a little more disciplined when he included American Sniper protagonist Chris Kyle in historical moments that didn’t involve him, resulting in a general score of 56.9%.
Conversely, you would have thought (Prayed? Hoped?) that Martin Scorsese took some big creative liberties in The Wolf of Wall Street when it came to depicting the depraved, drug-fueled life of Jordan Belfort, but…nope. That one got a 74.6%, which is somewhat mind-boggling.
The site and project are a work in progress, but you can certainly expect more in the near future. But take a look now and make sure the education you’ve received from “historical” films is up to snuff.