When a movie is “based on a true story” you have to brace yourself. Because movies are not real life. Even if a film is about a real person there are always going to be things heightened to make the film exciting. Some details are made up and worse some aren’t included at all.
In my recent blog about “Unbroken” I talked about a beautiful story that was next to impossible to tell in a two hour movie. And the full story wasn’t told. I know a lot about that film because I read the book but with other films this award season that are based on true stories I can’t necessarily tell what’s fact and what’s Hollywood.
Maybe it’s better that I don’t know then. What I’ve found with three films: “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Foxcatcher” is that true stories make the most compelling films. That doesn’t mean that I’m saying I thought all three of these films were genius, though.
Sometimes, especially when dealing with real life subjects, films tend to try too hard. I like to call this “Oscar bait.” All I really mean is filmmakers who try too hard to get an Oscar or have their actors get an Oscar. The best way to spot Oscar bait is when a film is based on a true story.
Let’s first look at “The Theory of Everything.” I’m surprised that it’s taken Hollywood this long to make a movie about Stephen Hawking, but then again, why now? After all, he’s still alive. Oscar bait usually comes in the form of long dead characters. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking is the definition of Oscar bait. Don’t get me wrong, Redmayne is fantastic in the film, but how can he not be? You can’t make a movie about a brilliant scientist with ALS who has given so much to science and have it be a poor performance. That’s disrespectful.
Then we have Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher.” When it comes down to it Redmayne and Carell will be in the same Best Actor category come February. Carell plays the creepy rich dude turned wrestling obsessive turned murderer John du Pont in “Foxcatcher.” This move is scary more than anything else. Carell was amazing in it! I didn’t know much about the story of du Pont and the Schultz brothers and how he lured them to work at his equally creepy wrestling camp Foxcatcher only to murder Dave Schultz. While I was watching this film I was really engrossed in everything that was happening because it was true, but at the same time I couldn’t help but think it was also trying way too hard. Playing a mentally ill murderer? How can you not get nominated for that!
Almost too easy characters aside, “The Theory of Everything” and “Foxcatcher” also run the foul of smudging the actual truth. It’s a well-known fact that Hawking and his first wife Jane didn’t get along through most of their marriage. Like they hated each other, yet “Theory” makes it seem like they had a wonderful romance that lasted for years. I do think the film captured the love Jane felt for Hawking that made her stay with him for so long but I don’t think it even touched on the coldness and distance between the couple that had to have been there.
Mark Schultz, who has written a book about the events at Foxcatcher farm, recently said that the events in “Foxcatcher” are muddled and they aren’t the real story at all. Now this could (and probably is) him trying to get attention, but he makes a good point. There are a lot of personal conversations between Carell’s eerie character and Channing Tatum’s Mark character in the film as well as undertones about du Pont and his mother’s relationship. How do we know those things are fully true when the filmmakers weren’t around the farm in the 1990’s too see and hear them? Any film that’s based on a true story runs this foul of course, but I could feel it, call it a gut feeling, that things were made very Hollywood so the film could work on a dramatic level.
Although I generally enjoyed “The Theory of Everything” and “Foxcatcher” despite their all too obvious efforts for an Oscar, I liked “The Imitation Game” the best of all. I feel like the Benedict Cumberbatch led movie was well-written, well dramatized, and didn’t try too hard. The story of Alan Turing, the father of computer science and the modern computer, is probably historically well-known, but the story of how he helped build a machine to break the German Enigma codes during World War II probably isn’t.
What captivated me most about “The Imitation Game” was that it tied in Turing’s personal life with the events of his heroics during the war and it worked. It didn’t seem too distant or removed and it fully brought his real life story to light. Turing may have invented this brilliant machine that helped Britain during the war, but he never got credit for it during his life because it was top secret. He was constantly made fun of by his peers and was arrested and charged for being gay because that was literally the kind of laws Britain had in place at the time. He committed suicide at a young age.
It may sound like Oscar bait, but after watching “The Imitation Game” I felt more satisfied than I had this whole award season. The film makes a strong political statement about war and the issue of homosexuality in our culture over time, but it never felt forced on me. It never made me upset. I felt totally connected to the character of Turing. He had a terribly difficult life just like Carell and Redmayne’s characters, but it just seemed so much less perfectly tailored for Academy voters. Which makes sense to me because “The Imitation Game” has been the least discussed out of the three films.
When Oscar nominations come out next Thursday these three men and the famous characters they portrayed will have Best Actor nominations. I believe Cumberbatch should win for his beautiful performance of Turing. But that’s only if Academy voters can see past the bait.