Truth in Hollywood
Review of Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen's Based on a True Story: Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies
Since the object of this book was to separate fact from fiction, the first thing I tried to do was to find something they got wrong. One minor point was that they bought into the story that Michael Jackson tried to buy the remains of Joseph "Not John" Merrick, the Elephant Man. This is widely regarded as a hoax but the authors stated it as pure fact. Otherwise, it was pretty good.
Most of the movies they wrote about were fairly recent, several from 2003, although a few like The French Connection went back to the 70s. Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't mentioned or is The Ten Commandments or even Fargo. It doesn't cover as many movies as Joseph Roquemore's History Goes to the Movies or write about them as insightfully as Mark C. Carnes Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, but it was a fun read.
Some good points:
* The real Oskar Schindler didn't have a "character arc" like he did in the movie. Oskar, like most people, was a static character—he began helping Jews when he first came to Krakow, not after a moral epiphany. However many of the details, including the girl in red scene, were based on Oskar and other survivor's accounts. List-bashing was big when I was in grad school but I still think for whatever imperfections it had, it remains a powerful movie (considering other Oscar-winners of the era Gump, Titanic, The English Patient, I don't see the need to pick on this one).
* George S. Patton: "You can't run an army without profanity. An army without profanity couldn't fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag."
* The first Hollywood exploitation movie based on the Titanic was Saved from the Titanic, starring real-life survivor Dorothy Gilbson, released less than a month of the sinking.
* The von Trapp Family Singers actually escaped from Austria on a train. A regular train, just bought tickets and rode away without any Gestapo interference at all. Maria von Trapp noted that if they had crossed the mountains as presented in the movie, they would have walked directly into Germany.
* Most "innocent behind bars" have less to do with facts than marketing and/or politics. In Monster, director Patty Jenkins portrayed Aileen Wuornos as almost forced into becoming a serial killer. In real life, her planning and bragging about the murders is what did her in. Some true crime, like Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, apparently stuck to the details but, while the book doesn't mention it, I'd think a documentary like Paradise Lost would almost always be more powerful than a reenactment.
I had a hard time placing the political bias until I got to the last review, Oliver Stone's JFK, which is described as "the most fact heavy movie in Hollywood history." Aha, the authors also wrote The 80 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time. I agree with the authors that Oliver Stone does take more flack for inaccuracies than other just-as-guilty directors but I don't believe that "there's never been a movie as viciously and unrelentingly flayed" or that the controversy generated by the "flaying" works in Stone's favor. The book came out in 2005, some of the material comes from 2004, and the authors reviewed Braveheart, The Patriot, and Gallipoli, so if flaying gets their interest, you'd think . . .