Every year, just in time for Oscar consideration, studios release a slew of prestige movies supposedly based on true stories. And every year, it turns out that most of those movies embellish the truth, gloss over inconvenient facts, and invent things for the sake of the plot. Does any of this matter? If people are getting their history from movies, yes. The data-collecting website Information Is Beautiful, founded by London-based journalist David McCandless, decided to investigate 14 recent fact-based Hollywood films to see just how accurate or inaccurate they are. The resulting report, titled “Based On A True True Story?,” shows that not all biopics are created equal. While Selma and The Big Short get high marks for honesty, the former being clocked at 100 percent accurate, The Imitation Game is deemed to be only about 41.4 percent true. So maybe don’t cite that film in any term papers, at least not for history class.
The report is billed as a “scene-by-scene breakdown,” and indeed, each of the 14 films gets its own color-coded timeline in which individual moments are categorized as “true,” “true-ish,” “false-ish,” and “false.” Readers can also choose varying levels of journalistic rigor, ranging from “Flexible - c’mon it’s movies!” to “Only the absolute truth.” Even by the strictest standards, Selma still scores 100 percent. The Imitation Game, however, drops down to a miserable 18.6 percent, with long sections declared false. “This film just rips the historical record to shreds,” the report declares. As for Clint Eastwood’s controversial American Sniper, also low-rated here, “A lot of the events in the movie did happen, but [Chris] Kyle’s involvement in them was repeatedly exaggerated.”
There’s a middle ground, too. Viewers should know that The Wolf Of Wall Street, while basically true, was based on a book by “a famous, disreputable salesperson.” And the actors added to the script, too. That famous Matthew McConaughey chest-thumping scene? Didn’t happen that way in real life. Sorry.