Last week we took a look at movies which claimed to be “based on a true story,” and were largely successful at portraying the truth. This week I want to take a look at some “true stories” that don’t even come close to the truth. When it comes to cinematic entertainment, how important is the truth? Is the it filmmaker’s responsibility to be historically accurate, emotionally honest, or both? Maybe it’s all just a gimmick to trick dummies into buying movie tickets. But Cinedelphia readers aren’t dummies (yeah, I’m talking to you), so I’ll leave it up to you to decide. Mull it over while you read about five “true” movies that really aren’t true at all.
Flight (2012 – dir. Robert Zemeckis)
Denzel Washington delivers a knockout, Oscar nominated performance about a pilot struggling with the demons of addiction. One day, while pretty drunk and coked up, Washington’s Whip Whitaker pulls a bravado in-flight maneuver to stabilize a crashing plane. By inverting the airliner, he is able to heroically bring it to the ground and minimize casualties. Only 6 people on the plane die, and a legal and ethical battle ensues as we decide whether Whitaker is a reckless addict or a bold hero. You can’t write stories this good. It’s got to be true. Except that it isn’t, and someone totally did write it.
Why does it claim to be based on a true story? Because Alaska Airlines Flight 261 experienced a similar situation. After losing engine power, the pilot attempted to fly the plane upside down in an effort to stabilize it … and killed everybody on board, including himself. Whoops.
The Strangers (2008 – dir. Bryan Bertino)
Despite being the worst of the bunch (why would you ever use the opening scene to state that everybody dies? Bye bye, tension), The Strangers can probably be credited for kicking off the late 00’s run of home invasion horror, most, if not all of which claim to be based on true stories. This conceit works well with this subgenre in that it increases the “this could totally happen to me” aspect inherent to the style. In the case of The Strangers, however, the claim is complete and utter nonsense. A single night, single location story of a couple being terrorized by masked torturers seems believable enough, except that it didn’t happen. Like, at all.
From where did Bertino draw inspiration for this story? Years ago, someone knocked on his door asking for a specific person. Bertino told the visitor they had the wrong address. That’s it.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006 – Gabriele Muccino)
Remember back when Jaden Smith was tolerable? It all began with this warm, inspiring story of Chris Gardner, a man who spends almost a year as a homeless man after losing everything; his wife, his job, his dignity. Despite the odds stacking against him, he is able to use his intellect and his work ethic to lift himself out of poverty, and provide a proper life for his son. He also solves a Rubik’s Cube pretty quickly, which is cool.
Based on a book written by Gardner himself, how could this be anything but the truth? Well, let’s just say no one wants to watch Will Smith beat women, do PCP with mistresses, and neglect his child. Not only was the real Gardner reputedly not a very nice person, but he beat his wife on several occasions (causing her to leave him and press charges), and for most of the time that this movie purports to take place, he hid from his son, oftentimes completely unaware of who was taking care of him, because he simply couldn’t be bothered. I should also mention that Gardner fathered his child from an extramarital affair, and was likely high on PCP at the time of conception.
Oh, and to this day, Gardner has never solved a Rubik’s Cube. Ever.
The Fourth Kind (2009 – Olatunde Osunsanmi)
In one of the boldest declarations of truth, the trailers for The Fourth Kind explicitly state that the alien abductions and their fallout depicted in the movie are all based in documented truth. The footage we would be seeing would consist of dramatic recreations drawn from recorded events as well as footage from the events themselves. Milla Jovovich appears in the trailer, as herself, to issue a plea that anyone with further information about this series of events please come forward. Super convincing right? Why would Milla Jovovich, whose experiences in the Resident Evil universe have granted her indispensable experiential knowledge of the supernatural, speak so solemnly and seriously about an event if it weren’t true?
Well, because she’s an actress, that’s why. Literally every aspect of The Fourth Kind is completely made up. There is no extrapolation to do here because not an ounce of it is based in any truth. It’s the exact same gimmick that the Coen brothers used for Fargo: just say it’s true, and people will believe even the most glaringly fantastical aspects.
Rudy (1993 – dir. David Anspaugh)
Everybody and their brother knows the story of “Rudy” Ruettiger, the Notre Dame football player who was just too damned small to be taken seriously by his coach. After spending much of the season riding the bench, support from Rudy’s teammates and hordes of inspired fans undercut the evil inclinations of their coach Dan Devine, and Rudy is allowed to play. He sacks the quarterback, helping to win the big game and is paraded off the field by his teammates as the hero of the day.
The real life Rudy fought for years to have his inspiring story brought to the screen, despite the fact that the real story is not inspiring even in the slightest. In reality, Devine announced that Rudy would be suited up and ready to play weeks before the game depicted in the film. See, Devine and Rudy were good friends, and while Devine understood that Rudy really wanted to be considered an official part of the Fighting Irish roster, Rudy understood that it’s the coach’s job to bench players that aren’t physically capable of elevating the team — players like Rudy.
Rudy’s teammates never protested on his behalf, nor did they feel the need to; Rudy was just like every other bench warmer: there, just in case. Rudy did indeed get to play, and was thusly included in the official roster, but it wasn’t anything notable. The crowd didn’t chant his name, the coach didn’t offer any resistance. He was indeed carried off of the field by his teammates, but it was mostly because they were all good friends, happy to have shared the field together. Furthermore, when Rudy began to formulate his movie pitch, Coach Devine agreed to let himself be portrayed as the villain. Anything to help his friend, Rudy.
Please remember, this piece is not a condemnation of any of these films (well, except for The Strangers. That movie sucks), but rather an exploration into the responsibility of a filmmaker to produce an honest story. Despite being factually inaccurate, I think each and every entry on this list can be called honest: Flight is a sobering and relatable story about addiction. The Pursuit of Happyness and Rudy both send positive messages about the power of the human spirit. The Strangers and The Fourth Kind nobly attempt to provide a funhouse of scares for willing audiences. Without the “based on a true story” stamp, these stories would be probably be equally as effective, but certainly not as indelible as they’ve proven to be (well, The Fourth Kind never really took off, but you get my meaning).
What true story movies do you surmise to be total bunk? Let us know in the comments!
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.