We've all seen movies that were "based on a true story," but how "true" are these stories? There are no hard and fast rules for a film's accuracy. Just how true to the facts a director wants his story to portray is up to them, but the end results can vary widely.
The website Information is Beautiful has recently published a report that breaks down 14 movies released in the last few years that claim to be "based" or "inspired" by real events. Each scene in these movies has been broken down and has been classified as one of the following:
- Unknown: "We couldn't verify it or the sources were secret (i.e. personal diaries)"
- False: "Out and out didn't happen, or outrageous dramatic license taken."
- False-ish: "Pretty false but with reasonable / understandable dramatic license."
- True-ish: "Some tweaks but true in spirit. Or a mix of true and false."
- True: "Pretty much as it happened."
[Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Imitation Game (2014) ahead]
Then, each movie was given an accuracy score. The Big Short came out near the top with an accuracy rating of 91.4 percent accuracy rating meaning that only a few tweaks were changed from real life to the movie for artistic purposes. Contrast that to American Sniper which was found to be only 56.9 percent accurate.
Bridge of Spies was released in 2015 and was directed by Steven Spielberg. The Cold War film was about James B. Donovan, an American lawyer who was assigned to defend a Soviet spy in court as well as arrange an exchange of the spy, Rudolf Abel, for an American u2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers. According to Information is Beautiful, here is where the film falters:
The movie: Shots were fired into Donovan's home after news got out that he was defending a spy.Reality: Donovan was verbally attacked with hate mail and phone threats, but his family was not attacked physically.
The movie: Features scenes where Donovan spent the night in jail.Reality: He never spent time in jail.
The movie: Donovan appears to work his mission alone.Reality: Donovan actually worked more with a team than the film shows.
The accuracy score for The Imitation Game is much lower with only 41.4 percent. Unlike Bridge of Spies, the story's changes are made throughout the whole film. The story is about Alan Turing, an amazing mathematician who helped to crack the enigma code during World War II. Here are just a few scenes that the movie gets wrong:
The movie: One character in the film, Hugh Alexander, states that they had used letter distribution frequency to crack some codes.Reality: The earlier attempts to crack the code didn't use frequency analysis which was considered worthless.
The movie: After being told how Turing's machine lacked of results, Commander Denniston breaks in Turing's headquarters in Bletchley Park, turns off the code deciphering machine, and fires Turing.Reality: The machine was not installed in Bletchley Park, Denniston did not try to turn it off and did not fire Turing.
The movie: At the end of the movie, Turing states that he won't be alone as he has his computer named Christopher.Reality: Turing was eccentric, not autistic, and did not confuse machines with people.
The only movie on Information is Beautiful's list to receive a 100 percent accurate rating (so far) is 2015's Selma. Every scene was considered true to life.
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Information is Beautiful will continue to add movies to their accuracy list study. Here is their current list ratings:
- Selma (2015) 100 percent accurate
- The Big Short (2016) 91.4 percent accurate
- Bridge of Spies (2015) 89.9 percent accurate
- 12 Years a Slave (2014) 88.1 percent accurate
- Rush (2013) 81.9 percent accurate
- Spotlight (2015) 81.6 percent accurate
- Captain Phillips (2013) 81.4 percent accurate
- The Social Network (2010) 76.1 percent accurate
- The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) 74.6 percent accurate
- The Kings Speech (2010) 73.4 percent accurate
- Philomena (2013) 69.8 percent accurate
- Dallas Buyers Club (2014) 61.4 percent accurate
- American Sniper (2015) 56.9 percent accurate
- The Imitation Game (2015) 41.4 percent accurate