Since the millennium, there have been a number of shifts and developments in the world of film. One such shift, however, has skirted under the radar. Films which claim to be ‘based on real events’ are more popular and prevalent than ever before. But why is this the case and what are the consequences of condensing factual events into a two-hour feature film?
During the first century of cinema up to the year 2000, roughly 200 films based on actual events were made. The first fourteen years of the millennium have already seen this number surpassed. Approximately 221 films of this kind having already been made. In fact, some of these films have been the most high-profile and talked about films of the century so far with The King’s Speech (2010), The Social Network (2010), Gladiator (2000), and Argo (2012) all achieving box office and critical success. So, why the sudden and meteoric upsurge?
Did the millennium mark a seminal moment in cinematic history? Did film-makers feel encouraged to look back into the past and tell real life stories of human suffering, triumph and hope? There has certainly been a noticeable increase in the number of film biopics, with examples such as Ray (2004), The Iron Lady (2011) and Ali (2001) all opening to widespread clamour and intrigue. Some might point to the increasingly derivative nature of modern Hollywood cinema, in which the same plot-lines are recycled time and again and producers, rather than directors and scriptwriters, are king. In the absence of original stories, therefore, executives turn to tales of people and events which are already of interest to the viewing public and are perceived as safer investments.
Another factor could lie the awards prestige which increasingly accompanies films based on true events. Since the turn of the century, no fewer than 19 Academy Awards have been won for leading or supporting actors in films of this kind. This growing acclaim may be a symptom of the broader shift, but it is nevertheless one reason why we are likely to see more films of this nature in the coming years. So what are the consequences for cinema as a whole? Whatever the reasons for this dramatic increase in films based on true events, the end result for audiences is not necessarily negative. Indeed, some of the industry’s most innovative and respected directors have crafted some of their best work from established stories.
Despite the fact that many new the film’s outcome, Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips (2013) was one of the most gripping and tense affairs of last year, not to mention a very fine film in its own right. Moreover, Steve McQueen’s third feature film, 12 Years a Slave (2013) was awarded Best Film at this year’s Oscars and in Lincoln (2011), Steven Spielberg oversaw Daniel Day-Lewis deliver a master class in screen acting as the eponymous lead. But that’s not all. Those so-called ‘true stories’ which figure at the heart of a film can often go on to lead a life of their own beyond the cinema. The Social Network (2010), though its version of events is disputed, raised the profile of the machinations which led to the founding of Facebook and got us all thinking about how a group of computer geeks were responsible for building an era-defining social media tool.
Another film, Zero Dark Thirty (2013), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, was at the centre of an international debate about the means by which American intelligence forces extracted information from suspects. Though silent on whether such means were legitimate or not, the film’s release a year after the conclusion of the hunt for Osama bin Laden invited the world to take stock of the last decade of American foreign policy and evaluate the wreckage. Seen in this light, it is one of the most significant films of the 21st century so far. Where does this leave us? Have we entered a new era in which film-makers find expression for their ideas through existing stories in the public domain? In a post 9/11 world, has the drama of real events eclipsed those depicted in fictionalised scripts? It is probably too early to say. One thing is for sure and that is that film-makers will continue to play with this new ‘genre’ and will happily blur the lines between fiction and reality when it suits the story they are striving to tell.
In the opening credits of American Hustle (2013), for instance, director David O. Russell offers a sly wink to the audience with the disclaimer ‘Some of this actually happened.’ He doesn’t tell us which parts are true and which are figments of his imagination. Ultimately with David O. Russell, as with all film-makers, the story is what counts in film, not the means by which that story arrives on the screen.