We have all heard the phrase “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”, and Hollywood has certainly taken that saying to heart. While plenty of interesting stories happen in real life, they are usually not dramatic enough for the big screen, so screenwriters take liberties with the story to spruce it up. So whenever the words “based on a true story” appear on a movie screen, take it with a huge grain of salt.
From being historically inaccurate to simply making things up, films based on fact have a bad reputation. The following films, while being entertaining and some are even acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, have received a lot of criticisms for how far from the reality of the story the movie is.
1. Money For Nothing (Ramon Menendez, 1993)
This somewhat forgotten crime-comedy from 1993 tells the true story of unemployed Philadelphia man Joey Coyle (John Cusack) who stumbles across $1.2 million in unmarked Federal Reserve funds that fell out of an armoured truck, and then shares the money with his fellow working class neighbours.
Money For Nothing was originally meant to be a darker crime film and provide social commentary on the unemployment problem for blue collar workers in Philadelphia, but once Disney took over the production, they changed it to a more comedic film.
John Cusack played Coyle as a slacker, although the real Joey Coyle had a serious drug addiction and tried to flee the country with envelopes stuck to his body containing the cash he found. Coyle almost went to jail for his crime, something else that was not portrayed in the film. The characters Vincente (Maury Chaykin) and Monica (Debi Mazar) did not exist in real life.
2. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
Facebook revolutionised the way people used social media and now billions of people across the world use it. Naturally, the story behind its creation was going to be a fascinating one, therefore be made into a movie. Many people behind Facebook’s creation, however, felt The Social Network was an overly dramatic and inaccurate version of events.
The film depicted the protagonists as arrogant college students who created Facebook to meet women and partied throughout the process of creating Facebook.
The reality, however, is that they were mostly using computers working with code to build the website. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) did not create Facebook to get revenge on a girl who dumped him in college. Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) appears as a victim to Zuckerberg’s greed and cold hearted attitude towards those around him.
3. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014)
American Sniper was a controversial depiction of America’s involvement in Iraq and one commemorated soldier’s account of his tours of duty there. Said soldier was Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal who holds the record for the most confirmed kills in American military history. The filmmakers did not care to portray other aspects of Kyle’s story accurately though.
In the film, Chris Kyle finds it difficult to cope with all the violence he has committed. The real Kyle, however, was very proud of his work. In the book, rival sniper Mustafa is only mentioned in one paragraph, but is depicted as the primary antagonist in the film.
Both the Butcher and the boy with the grenade that Kyle shoots at the beginning of the film never existed. Kyle’s comrade Ryan “Biggles” Job getting shot by Mustafa in combat; in reality, Job lived for several years after his tour of duty, and died due to surgical complications.
4. A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)
John Nash (Russell Crowe) is a mathematical genius working at a university who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He was having hallucinations of imaginary people talking to him, seeing hidden messages in newspapers, and being a part of a government operation. With the help of his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) and medication, Nash was able to overcome his illness and win the Nobel Prize for Economics.
The reality of Nash’s story is, however, very different. The real Nash heard voices talking to him, but never saw people, which is something director Ron Howard was criticised for, and rightfully so.
The real Alicia divorced Nash in 1963, and he had a son with another woman. Nash was a bisexual and anti-Semitic; these facts were presumably left out to make Nash a more sympathetic character. Nash also stopped taking his medication in 1970 and never made a speech for his Nobel Prize. This fictional account of Nash’s life is as crazy and unreliable as his hallucinations.
5. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
A film about the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy was always going to get a reaction out of people, therefore make big bucks at the box office.
It was a film that toyed with people’s emotions regarding the assassination, as well as focusing on the notorious conspiracy that the CIA were responsible for Kennedy’s murder. Stone gave America’s distress a face with Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), whose heart was in turmoil over Kennedy’s death and knew in his heart that something was not right with the Warren Commission’s report of the assassination.
Director Oliver Stone has made several films regarding American history, but his version of events is certainly revisionist history. A key suspect in the conspiracy was David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) who eventually breaks down crying and confessing to his involvement is completely made up; the real Ferrie always maintained his innocence.
Both Ferrie and Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) were key suspects working together in the conspiracy of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but these men never met in real life. While JFK is certainly a gripping thriller, it has absolutely no grip on reality whatsoever.
6. Alexander (Oliver Stone, 2004)
This is the second historical Oliver Stone film on this list, showing Stone’s fascination with history, although he tells fabricated versions of those real life stories.
After doing mostly political and action films, Alexander was Stone’s first and so far only attempt at an epic. The film was to focus more on who Alexander the Great as a person rather than purely on his military conquests. The result, however, was inaccurate and dull.
The events in the film are a composite of several events and battles in Alexander’s life, rather than a handful of events. The Battles of the Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela were merged into one battle. The Battle of Hydaspes was not fought in a forest on a sunny day, but on a muddy plain on a rainy night. The real Philotas and Darius III were much older when they died than they are in the film.
Alexander also over emphasises Alexander’s homosexuality, as he was a bisexual. In fact, the film relies just as much on the theme of sexual frustration as it does warfare and history.
7. The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013)
Although The Butler was a critical darling with the Oscars, the titular butler’s personal life as depicted on screen was nowhere near as sad or dramatic. Screenwriter Danny Strong stated that Cecil Gaines is not purely based on Eugene Allen, but Gaines is actually a composite of various White House staff members.
As such, Gaines’ family life is mostly fictional. His mother was never raped; his father was not murdered; his wife was not an alcoholic and she never cheated on him; his son was not killed in the Vietnam War; and his second son, who was a member of the Black Panther party, simply never existed.
As far as his job went, the real Gaines simply applied for a pantry worker job at the White House. The scene where he is seen working hard never happened. In the film, Gaines retired because when he was guest at the state dinner, he realises that his role was very subservient upon seeing his colleagues serving him dinner. The real Gaines took pride in his work.
8. Sid And Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)
The Sex Pistols are without a doubt the most famous punk band of the 1970s who pioneered their genre and launched it into the mainstream. With their dramatic onstage and offstage antics, and the sudden and ugly death of their charismatic bass guitarist Sid Vicious, and his tumultuous relationship with Nancy Spungen, it is no surprise that Vicious received the Hollywood treatment of a rock n roll biopic.
Having said that, the film was more interested in creating the feel of the punk era rather than an accurate portrayal of one of the genre’s most famous figures. Sid and Nancy depicts its subjects as nasty and violent drug addicts out of control and causing chaos wherever they went. It is implied that Nancy introduced Sid to heroin, starting their downward spiral with drugs and their eventual overdoses.
The band’s singer, Johnny Rotten, has blasted the film for being, as he put it, “the Peter Pan version” of Vicious’s life. Rotten claims the film exaggerated Vicious’s onstage persona to make it appear he acted like a punk all the time, and that the filmmakers made little to no attempt at talking to the people who really knew Vicious.
9. Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)
The winner of the 2013 Best Picture Oscar tells the story of how, in 1980, the CIA went into Iran masquerading as a film crew shooting a science fiction movie to rescue six American hostages being held in Tehran. While Argo certainly made for a compelling movie, it is far from being an accurate version of the truth.
The real life mission was largely carried out by the Canadian government, much more so than the American CIA, as shown in the film. Unlike the events in Argo, the American government did not take issue with the mission being under the guise of a fake film crew. In fact, this was the one of the three options they chose.
The biggest discrepancy Argo is guilty of is the dramatic finale at the airport when the hostages are being sneaked out of Iran. The struggle with airport security and having armed men chasing the plane with the hostages as it took off never happened. The real life hostages went through the airport with no problems whatsoever.
10. Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, 2013)
Notorious action director Michael Bay returned to his ‘90s Miami Bad Boys roots when he made Pain & Gain, his action/comedy film about bodybuilders who kidnap and hold a rich man for ransom to make their dreams come true. The film emphasises throughout its duration that it is, indeed, a true story. However, it should not come as any surprise that a film made by Michael Bay cannot be taken too seriously.
There were several people involved in the kidnapping, not just three men. Dwayne Johnson’s character, Paul Doyle, is a composite character based on three men, but primarily on Carl Weekes.
Weekes was indeed new to Miami and a born again Christian, but in real life he was a lightweight bodybuilder who was nowhere near as buff as Johnson is, and he did not have anything to do with the latter part of the scheme presented on film. None of the men got a toe shot off either.
While blindfolded, the real Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) did not recognise Lugo by his cologne, but simply by his voice. Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) was a violent brute, not the timid man he is in the film. In fact, Doorbal was the one who murdered Frank Griga (Michael Rispoli) rather than Lugo. The gang did not wear ninja costumes during the kidnapping either.
11. The Pursuit Of Happyness (Gabriele Muccino, 2006)
Both Will Smith and The Pursuit Of Happyness were widely praised upon the film’s release, and it got Smith nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. While the film certainly is an uplifting story of succeeding against adversity and poverty, this film still took liberties with the facts.
Being that the film’s emotional core exists in the form of a father-son relationship, it must be noted that his son was conceived from an affair he had, rather than with his wife. On that note, his wife did not leave Gardner.
In real life, after Gardner’s wife suffered a miscarriage, he had an affair and got his mistress pregnant. Gardner was absent from much of his son’s life while he was pursuing his dream job, unlike the two of them being together all the time as the film portrays.
Gardner really did get arrested, but it was because of domestic violence charges against him rather than parking tickets. The truth is not mentioned in the film, to further make the film version of Gardner a nicer guy and more sympathetic to the audience.
Gardner also had help along the way to get his job. Rather than getting the job by solving the Rubik’s cube puzzle, Gardner was helped by a stockbroker. Gardner never tried to sell portable X-rays either.
12. Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993)
A comedic retelling of how a Jamaican bobsleigh team were allowed to compete in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, despite being from a hot, tropical country, was bound to be a hit. Where it misses the mark, however, is in telling the facts.
It was two American businessmen who came up with the idea to create a Jamaican bobsleigh team, rather than the athletes themselves. In fact, the “athletes” were actually recruited from the Air Force. The team had corporate funding, so they did not need to resort to harebrained moneymaking schemes like they do in the film.
In the film, the Jamaican team were ridiculed by the other teams upon arrival at the Winter Games, to further emphasise what underdogs they are.
The East German team in particular are the Jamaican team’s rivals in the film, but not only were the Jamaicans treated as equals by all the other teams, but the real East German team actually allowed the Jamaicans to use their equipment and provided some coaching.
While there was a crash during a race that prevented the team from competing in further faces in the Calgary Winter Olympics, they did not carry their sled over their shoulders to the finish line, but walked next to it.
13. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014)
The Imitation Game centres around Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a humourless, anti-social and cold man who only cared about the job, regardless of how it affected others, especially his colleagues. His goal was to create a code breaking machine to defeat the Germans during World War II, while he faced adversity from his superiors in the British military.
The real Turing was a very different person. He had a good working relationship with his colleagues, and actually had a sense of humour. He was more openly gay than the film depicts, in which he is trying to hide his sexuality.
In flashbacks to Turing’s schooldays, he is in love with a classmate named Christopher, who also cares for Turing. In real life though, Christopher did not have these feelings for Turing. Despite this, the real Turing broke down crying when he found out Christopher died, whereas in the film, he acts like he barely knew Christopher.
The film made it seem Turing created the code breaking machine all by himself, but that is not true. He worked on it with another mathematician named Gordon Welchman, who is never mentioned in the film at all.
Turing did not have much opposition from the military as the film depicts. In fact, there is no record of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) being opposed to Turing’s work. Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) did not get admitted into the group of cryptologists by completing crossword puzzles.
Turing proposed to her not to help her escape her overbearing parents, but because he genuinely liked her, despite his homosexuality. Their break up was not the violent confrontation that film made it out to be.
In the film, Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) has a brother who is serving in the navy, and protests when Turing allows the Germans to attack the submarine Hilton’s brother is based on to prevent the Germans from figuring out the British are able to break their codes. Hilton never had a brother.
14. Domino (Tony Scott, 2005)
The life story of Domino Harvey, the daughter of Hollywood actor Laurence Harvey and model Pauline Stone, was destined to become a movie. She grew up in privilege, but never took to it, so she roughed it up and became a bounty hunter in downtown Los Angeles.
Domino is the joint effort of the writer of the strange cult classic Donnie Darko and the director of the flashy and violent Man On Fire; audiences knew that this film was going to be a wild ride. Is it entertaining? Hell yeah! Is it accurate? Not at all. There’s even a disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating, “Based on a true story… sort of.” At least the filmmakers were honest about it.
Harvey became a bounty hunter in the 1990s, not the early 2000s like the film shows, probably for the sake of modernising the story. Laurence Harvey died in 1973, not 1993. Harvey was never involved in a reality TV show about her intense job. The film leaves out the fact Harvey was actually a lesbian, not straight as depicted in the film.
The complicated mafia storyline and the big showdown in the Las Vegas casino never happened, at all. In real life, Harvey died from a drug overdose, as she had a serious addiction, something else that is not depicted in the film. The film is more focused on its flashy visuals and cuts than depicting fact.
15. Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995)
Over 20 years after its release, Braveheart still ranks very high on movies lists throughout the internet. With its compelling real life tale of the medieval violence of Scotland’s struggle against cruel English imperialism, this film was destined to be a hit, and won Mel Gibson the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.
The “They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom” speech is one of the most well-known movie speeches ever spoken thanks to Gibson’s powerful and passionate performance as the Scottish rebel William Wallace.
Despite its huge success, many scorn at Braveheart, because its telling of historical events barely resembles the real events and has many historical inaccuracies. Where to begin…
In the film, William Wallace was a peasant whose life was full of tragedy and injustices in the film that lead him to breaking point and decided to rid Scotland of the British once and for all, making the film a very personal story of one man’s struggle, as well as a story of war. However, in reality, Wallace was a knight from a royal family. Wallace’s father was not killed by the British; in fact, Wallace’s father fought for the British to gain favour from the Crown.
The history of the war and the era, and the real life people being depicted, were also muddled for the sake of entertainment. The Battle of Stirling Bridge happened on an actual bridge, not on a field.
Wallace married his wife Murron (Catherine McCormack) in secret so she will not be forced to have sex with the Lord of the land, as he has the right to have sex with newly married women on the day of their wedding under the Prima Nocte law. This law was not in effect in Wallace’s lifetime.
The romance between Wallace and Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau), resulting in their lovechild Edward III who would end the Longshanks bloodline, did not happen in real life. In fact, she was only a child when Wallace was fighting the British, and Edward III was born seven years after Wallace’s death.
The film is even inaccurate on an aesthetic level. The face paint worn by the Scottish soldiers happened centuries before William Wallace’s time, and kilts were not worn by men until about 300 years after Wallace’s lifetime. There is no doubt these were included in the story to show how Scottish these men were, as a sign of defiance against the British, despite being pure nonsense.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Monday 1 August 2016