A matter of fact
Hollywood loves a true story. A cynic might say it gives them something to lie about, but that's not quite fair. The words ''based on a true story'' may be the most debased currency in movies, but true stories still have a powerful function in human affairs, and therefore in Tinseltown. The need for stories seems to be hard-wired into our species. No matter how often a film's truth falls short, we live in hope, and hope puts bums on seats.
As most of us know, ''movie history'' is a contradiction in terms. There have been so many howlers in the name of history that it is hard to know where to start, but just as examples: Salieri did not want to kill Mozart (Amadeus), Lawrence's Arab followers did not desert him on the long march north (Lawrence of Arabia), Pocahontas did not have a love affair with John Smith (she was 10 years old), and Krakatoa is not east of Java, no matter which way you look at a map (Krakatoa, East of Java). John Wayne did his best to avoid going near a real war, despite all his war hero roles, and Alexander the Great did not speak with an Irish accent (Alexander).
Part of the problem is the difference between ''story'' and ''true story''. History is not neat; it takes too long to tell and is often unknowable. Or, as Brecht is supposed to have said, ''God writes lousy theatre''.
Shock, horror ... Psycho was inspired by a book about the serial killer Ed Gein.
Scriptwriters who stick close to the truth can write boring films, although it would be nice if they tried harder. Much of it is laziness, or pandering to audiences who want their truths shaped, massaged and digestible.
There are a lot of true stories coming in 2013; some look like being among the best films of the year. How truthful they are depends partly on your standards - and, to an extent, your politics.
The first to arrive is Hitchcock (opening January 10), with Anthony Hopkins transforming himself into Alfred Hitchcock at the time he was making Psycho in 1959. Hitch loved a true story, especially one that was hard to believe. He chose Psycho in a calculated risk, trying to reassert his mastery after Vertigo, a critical and box office failure (and recently voted the best movie of all time in the British Film Institute's poll of world critics).
Psycho was inspired by Robert Bloch's fictionalised book about the serial killer Ed Gein, a grave-robbing Wisconsin farmer who sliced heads and faces off women to make lampshades and a bodysuit. Gein (Michael Wincott) becomes a sort of muse to Hitchcock in the movie, appearing in his dreams, like a malevolent chorus. Helen Mirren plays Alma Reville, the master's confidante, script editor and long-suffering wife.
Hitchcock is fun, even if it tarnishes Alfred's star in order to burnish Alma's, but what is interesting in this context is the way John McLaughlin's script plays with the idea of a true story. He adopts a technique we might call psychic biography, which is entirely speculative. Hitchcock appears in some scenes beside Ed Gein down on the farm, as if Hitch were there. It's clear that this is a device, but it gives us a sense of how the real events were moulded and filtered until Psycho became something new - a story about Hitchcock's sexual longings, rather than the crimes of Gein. That's the problem with truth: Gein's real life had no shower scene.
Steven Spielberg has a long track record with true stories, although it is somewhat mixed, depending on how you rate Schindler's List, Amistad or Munich. His much-awaited biopic Lincoln (opening February 7), with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, arrives after six years of scriptwriting by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America). The film focuses on how the 16th president succeeded in passing the 13th Amendment to the US constitution - the law that banned slavery in the US at the Civil War's end.
This political fight occupies five of the 754 pages in Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography, Team of Rivals, one of the main sources for the film. Kushner says he wrote draft after draft, trying to squeeze the main events into a narrative, until Spielberg came up with the idea of focusing on this one event. Kushner was initially horrified: ''This is the first serious movie about Lincoln in 70-odd years! We can't base it on that!''
It is too early to know whether Lincoln will be accused of accuracy, but there are encouraging signs. Kushner, quoted in Smithsonian magazine, said: ''The rule was that we wouldn't alter anything in a meaningful way from what happened.'' Most films never even attempt that. Australian audiences will soon see The Impossible (opening January 24) with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor playing an English family separated from each other by the Asian tsunami. It is based on a true story, but the original family was Spanish, which illustrates one of the key points about the relationship between the film business and any true story: anything factual that gets in the way of a film's marketability is no longer true. Making the couple Spanish would have severely reduced the film's reach.
Another rule might be that real people become much prettier in the movies. Anyone who has seen a picture of Alma Reville, for example, would never mistake her for Helen Mirren. Mrs Hitchcock was short and plain and her husband was even plainer, but very few people go to the cinema to look at ugly people - even extraordinarily talented ones, as both of these were.
The connection between true stories and movies is organic. Cinema, like photography, is primarily a realistic medium, despite a long and enduring tradition of fantasy. Since 1896 in Paris, when the Lumiere brothers confounded people with actuality of a train arriving at a station, it was the factual, documentary nature of moving images that arrested people. Movies could show us real life in motion, something that had never before been possible.
There were plenty of films based on true stories in the silent era (The Story of the Kelly Gang, made in Australia in 1906, was one of the first), but they were limited by the lack of sound. Once movies started to talk, they became less dependent on melodrama and more interested in sensation. Death, debauchery and sex were unleashed - at least until American puritans took control with the Hays Code censorship guidelines in 1930.
European filmmakers escaped those strictures to some extent. The fascination with true crime took off in France, Britain and Germany. Hitchcock made The Lodger in 1927, a loose rendering of the hunt for Jack the Ripper. In Berlin in 1931, Fritz Lang made M, his first sound film, a chilling retelling of the story of Peter Kurten, ''the vampire of Dusseldorf'', a child-killer played by Peter Lorre.
Bonnie and Clyde and In Cold Blood, both based on sensational stories of true crime, appeared in 1967 at a time when the US was seething with political tensions. Young Americans were dying and killing in Vietnam and both of these movies reflected a concern about violence in American life - the darkness at home - although in Bonnie and Clyde, the violence is directed at the romantic outlaws, rather than the other way round.
This brings us to another idea about true story movies - their power comes partly from a connection to the Zeitgeist. The best of them show the world around us, which explains why movies can be such a battleground. Movies about history are as contestable as history itself.
The latest cause celebre is Zero Dark Thirty (opening January 31), a dramatisation of the 10-year campaign to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Republicans did not like the movie even before it was made. They claimed it was going to be a pro-Obama film to remind Americans of who got the bad guy, just before the elections. Conservatives claimed that director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (the team that made The Hurt Locker) were given improper access to classified government documents about the search for bin Laden. Both filmmakers, the CIA and the White House denied it, but the incident showed that the stakes were high - in Hollywood, as in Washington.
In fact, the movie may please Republicans more than they expected. Jane Mayer, whose book The Dark Side documents how the US and its allies used torture after the attacks of September 11, 2001, has accused the filmmakers of tacit support for torture.
In the movie, Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a young CIA agent who takes part, albeit with distaste, in the waterboarding and humiliation of suspects in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. She spends years hunting for bin Laden, often in direct conflict with her superiors, until she gets a vital piece of information, identifying bin Laden's personal courier.
In the movie, this comes from torture, and it leads to the house in Abbottabad in which bin Laden was killed. In other words, the torture worked.
In The New Yorker, Mayer writes: ''Perhaps it's unfair to expect the entertainment industry to convey history accurately. Clearly, the creators of Zero Dark Thirty are storytellers who really know how to make a thriller. And it's true that there are no rules when it comes to fiction. As Boal, the screenwriter, has protested in recent interviews, 'It's a movie, not a documentary'. But in the very first minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, before its narrative begins to unspool, the audience is told that the story it is about to see is 'based on first-hand accounts of actual events'. It seems [the filmmakers] want it both ways: they want the thrill that comes from revealing what happened behind the scenes as history was being made, as well as the creative licence of fiction, which frees them from the responsibility to stick to the truth.''
Ouch. Mayer has a point. Filmmakers do that a lot. Zero Dark Thirty has already won a swag of best film awards, including accolades from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review.
It is a superb movie, convincing and disturbing, and it raises some exquisite questions about the notion of a true story. The agent Maya is a composite of several women, which is already a distortion. The vital clue that led to bin Laden did not come from torture, according to several people who should know, and the movie does not show that there was a furious debate within the FBI and the CIA about these methods. The film aims to be seen as reportage but falls short despite its qualities.
This is not just academic. Recent research suggests we remember what we see in movies to an alarming degree. Researchers at Duke University tested 36 undergraduates by giving them short factual texts about a historical event, then showing clips from films about it. The students were poor at finding historical inaccuracies in the clips, even after reading the texts. And those who had read accurate reports beforehand picked up just as much bad information as those who only watched the clips.
In other words, those who do not learn from the mistakes of history movies are doomed to repeat them.