Recently I watched what looked, from descriptions I’d read, like an interesting movie. It was a fabricated story “inspired by actual events”, as opposed to “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story” or “based on actual events.”
According to the blurb on the DVD cover, the film was “Astonishing.” As it turns out, the only thing about the movie I found astonishing was that it got made at all. Surprisingly, the “actual events” that inspired the story were more horrific than the ones actually portrayed in the movie. More often than not, the opposite is true. Otherwise tepid events are typically sensationalized to titillate potential viewers. That should give you an idea of how grim these particular “actual events” were.
There are a number of questions and concerns that films like this raise in my mind:
First, when is a true story not a true story? Is it fair to sell fiction as fact? The Academy Award winning best picture of 2012, “Argo”, brought this question to the fore. It was publicized as, “Based on the declassified true story”, but it was more fiction than history. How discerning is the average moviegoer? From my perspective, not very. Therefore, in a very real way, we’re rewriting history.
Then, is it fair to review a movie’s content versus its quality? I’ve seen plenty of weak movies that tell amazing stories ripped from headlines or history books. Great story, mostly because it was great in real life. The movie, not so much. Still, these are worth watching. One good example was a biopic (probably heavily fictionalized) about Cesar Chavez, a man whose story should be more widely known. The film was marginal, but it was important to see because I regularly need to be inspired by great – and real – men.
That also brings up the question of whether the moral content of a film should be included as part of its review. In today’s political climate, a racist film would almost certainly be trashed, as it should be. Yet misogynistic films and TV shows seem to be proliferating without much resistance. One could legitimately say that the moral judgment of a story is dependent on the morality of the reviewer. But doesn’t the reviewer’s bias come into play in any review? If every reviewer agreed on every movie, we could eliminate personal prejudices as a factor. But then we would never have had Siskel and Ebert arguing about the direction of thumbs. What fun would that be?
So then, of what value are critics’ opinions? Probably none at all, except in those rare cases where all the critics seem to agree. But even then, if I’d listened to that unanimity, I’d have missed out on some films I consider terrific. (Call me weird.) Worse are the films I’ve seen because the cognoscenti decreed them great and they’ve left me feeling like I needed a good scrubbing afterward.
Unless you have a particular reviewer whose opinions always align with yours – Ebert was one who came closest for me – you’re pretty much on your own.
Like me, be your own best critic.