The multiplex is often where audiences go to escape the cruel realities of the world around them. The film industry has a penchant, however, for turning fact-based stories into dramatized Hollywood spectacles, though a new study conducted by Information is Beautiful finds several mainstream titles — from Ava DuVernay’s Selma to Adam McKay’s The Big Short — are surprisingly accurate when it comes to doing the stories of their real-life subjects justice on the big screen.
Data journalist David McCandless, whose writing credits include pieces for The Guardian and Wired, and Information is Beautiful‘s Stephanie Smith sifted through 14 films based on true stories — nearly all of them Best Picture Oscar nominees or winners, save for 2013’s Rush — released between 2010 and 2015. The pair broke down each film scene-by-scene, and compared respective titles’ staging of historical events to the corresponding material that inspired them.
Of the 14 films, DuVernay’s Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic Selma, starring David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, scored a 100 percent accurate grade, with none of its scenes, ranging from reenactments of the 1965 Selma civil rights marches to Jimmie Lee Jackson’s (played by Keith Stanfield in the film) death at the hands of state trooper J.B. Fowler, earning anything below a “true-ish” score on the study’s scale, which gives scenes one of five ratings: true, true-ish, false-ish, false, or unknown if there is no source information upon which to make a judgment.
Last year’s Best Picture winner, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which revolves around the Boston Globe‘s investigative journalism unit that helped to expose child sex abuse cases involving several priests in Boston-based sects of the Roman Catholic church, earned an 81.6 percent accurate grade, with a big scene toward the beginning of the film earning an entirely false label; the scene sees the Globe‘s Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) awkwardly meeting with one of the paper’s editors, Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), to discuss the future of the unit. According to McCandless, McCarthy “chose to play on the insider/outsider dynamic, putting tension between the Bostonians & new guy Baron,” though, in reality, “Baron was accepted just fine, & respected by Robinson.”
On the other hand, Clint Eastwood’s divisive American Sniper, about the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), received a 56.9 percent accuracy rating.
“A lot of the events in the movie did happen, but Kyle’s involvement in them was repeatedly exaggerated,” McCandless wrote. “His tragic hero status was a Hollywood flourish – by all accounts (including his own) he thrived off his job and it didn’t bother him much.”
The lowest-scoring film of the bunch, with a 41.4 percent rating, is Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, who decrypted German intelligence messages to the British army’s advantage during World War II, though he was later prosecuted for being gay under the country’s anti-homosexuality laws.
“Alan Turing did work as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park during the war and was arrested for homosexuality after the war. That much is true,” the film’s summary page in the study reads. “Most of the rest of this film isn’t. To be fair, shoe-horning the incredible complexity of the Enigma machine and cyptography in general was never going to be easy. But this film just rips the historical record to shreds.”
For a thorough anaylsis of each of the 14 films surveyed, including Stephen Frears’ Philomena, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, check out the Information is Beautiful‘s page here.